Writer-director Ramin Bahrani's adaptation of the acclaimed novel isn't quite "this year's Parasite," but still offers plenty of thrills
Hailed as a masterfully sharp commentary on class warfare upon its release in 2008, Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger has lost none of its bite on its nearly 13 year journey to the screen. Adapted by Ramin Bahrani – no stranger to cinematic class conflict following the magnificent 99 Homes - this blackly comic send-up of India’s caste system and self-perception as the world’s greatest democracy is uneven but thrilling. It’s not quite – as some have suggested – “this year’s Parasite,” but it does have the same sense of righteous fun at the expense of the rich, not to mention a similarly murderous glint in its eye.
Ardash Gourav, hugely impressive in his first leading role, plays Balram, a smart young man from an incredibly poor rural family who seeks his fortune as a driver for the wealthy family who act as landlords for his entire village. His restless, confessional voiceover drives the action, part of a very funny framing device in which Balram is writing a long email to the visiting Chinese premier, encouraging him to visit Balram’s business. We witness Indian society, and the caste systems within caste systems that make up its structure, through Balram’s eyes, and it’s not a pretty picture, laced with corruption, filth, and an utter disregard for the poor.
After impressing on a test drive, Balram is promoted to being the sole driver of US-educated entrepreneur Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). He ingratiates himself quickly, but one drunken night and its tragic consequences show how the couple really only see Balram as a human being when it suits them, and he starts to formulate a plan to take full control of his own life.
At its best, The White Tiger is incredibly exciting. Bahrani conjures plenty of edge-of-your-seat set pieces and captures the constant anxiety of an employee who’s encouraged to think of themselves as “family” but is never sure what degree of familiarity will cross the line on any given day. It’s a clever blend of traditional thrills and class tensions, complemented perfectly by Gourav’s nervy performance that never gives too much away.
Between its standout scenes, though, there are quite a few lulls in The White Tiger’s pacing, particularly in the middle section, which makes the second act feel overlong and the ending a bit rushed. It’s a shame, since the Bangalore setting of the final scenes, with the glistening glass buildings of American companies’ outsourced offices, is truly compelling, showing a side of India that Hollywood is very rarely interested in. With an entirely Indian cast and half of its dialogue in Hindi, The White Tiger feels like a major step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood, especially as it will sit proud on the home page of millions of people’s Netflix accounts worldwide.
Bahrani does a good job of capturing the sheer vastness of India and the enormous cultural and monetary disparities that this can foster. When Balram first drives from his village to Delhi, it’s like he’s travelled through time, his home’s lack of electricity and running water contrasting against the giant, pristine hotels of the capital, all white and gold and incongruously new, standing out against the landscape as if placed there overnight.
The White Tiger tries to balance catharsis and complexity and – though the latter does sometimes get in the way of the former – it's incredibly satisfying when the film gets it right. Hierarchies of wealth, caste, birthplace, and employer create prisons for the characters, exacerbated by family traditions that seek to quash any ambition just as thoroughly as the ruling class. Balram’s intricately-plotted escape from these prisons makes for one of the more entertaining movies of this year’s awards season.
The White Tiger is available to stream on Netflix from 22 January.Where to watch