On the surface, writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger” may look like a simple rags to riches story about overcoming the odds. Underneath, though, there’s much more to be discovered, including an honest and unflinching look at the caste system and its systemic abuse of those lacking money or power.
As a kind of rebuttal to 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” which is more of an idealistic fairy tale in which everyone wins and the guy gets the girl, “The White Tiger” is the darker, grittier alternative.
Bahrani is no stranger to delivering films in a raw and forthright manner – “99 Homes” is a great example of the struggles and the oppression of the lower class – and this is his latest message. His sensibilities as a director are on display, fully diving into the mind of the servant and seeing the world through naïve eyes. His passion for the subject matter is clear, if not a little indulgent, and at over two hours in length, there’s certainly a tighter script in there somewhere.
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) knows the ins and outs of all the guidelines that rule his life. He refers to his village and his life as the “darkness,” just a chicken coop where everyone waits in line to get beheaded. From the get-go the filmmakers play on the expectation that servants and people from a lower caste will never amount to much of anything. When the story diverges into darker territory and Balram starts to take his destiny into his own hands, there is a natural tonal shift in the film. Much in the way Balram experiences a paradigm shift, the audience now has a new perspective. There is a nervous energy brought to the film, we know that from the beginning of the film he ultimately escapes – but what we don’t know is how.
Gourav crushes it as Balram. If this year wasn’t already stacked with great performances, Gourav would be a dark horse for some awards contention. He’s utterly believable as both the gullible and submissive servant, as well as the calculating and cruel “white tiger.” His performance is what makes the film tick, and being that this is his first leading role in a Hollywood film, I would expect to see quite a bit more of Mr. Gourav in the coming years.
The supporting cast also stands out, with Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Vijay Maurya, and Mahesh Manjrekar playing the various family members of the rich masters and breathing life into the world created by Bahrani. The photography also adds to the richness of the story, showing India from all perspectives, from the rural villages to bustling Mumbai, detailing a difference in lifestyle that is as important to the story as any character. Cinematographer Paolo Carnera shapes Balram’s journey through color and landscapes showcasing India’s natural beauty.
It’s hard to point out faults in a film that gets so much right, but there are some inconsistencies with the tone, as well as a bloated script that each does a disservice to what could be a big hit. Balram’s story is complicated and weaves in and out of moments that feel dark and gritty and also those that feel silly and light. The two moods went back and forth too often, and a tighter edit could not only establish a more consistent tone, but also stop the audience from glancing down at their watches.
What “The White Tiger” does best is get the audience to question its own morality: Do we cheer for Balram because of his station and all the abuse he has to endure? Even if his actions are at times brazen and downright immoral? Ultimately there are no real winners – it’s like rooting for someone in “Goodfellas” – but the journey and the social commentary are nonetheless quite stirring. Seeing the darker side of Balram and the risks he is willing to take, not only lead to a more invested audience, but there is a mistrust now with our main character. The morality is no longer in the grey, it is firmly in the black. The complicated questions “The White Tiger” asks, along with a stellar leading actor, make it a Netflix film worth checking out.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.