The White Tiger represents a perfect marriage between a gifted filmmaker and an incendiary novel. As it happens, director Ramin Bahrani is a close friend of novelist Aravind Adiga and has worked for years to bring this prize-winning book to the screen.
Bahrani has wisely adopted the author’s first-person approach to his sprawling narrative. This enables him to embrace all the irony, sarcasm, and contradiction embedded in the telling of a saga. Balram (played to perfection by Adarsh Gourav) is a dirt-poor villager who journeys to the city to live out his dream of success as an entrepreneur. Yet he is inexorably tied to a fate determined for him by generations of impoverished ancestors: to spend his life as a willing, self-sacrificing servant. This well-trodden path is illustrated by a visual metaphor I won’t give away—and I’ll never forget.
Balram is taken in by a wealthy family in Bangalore with two grown sons, one of whom (Rajkumar Rao) has spent just enough time in the U.S. to have conflicting emotions about the caste system. He feigns fraternal feelings toward Balram, who becomes his driver, but in truth he is just as ruthless as his brutish father and older brother. His Americanized wife (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) is outwardly more understanding but even her sympathy has its limits.
At every turn of this riveting tale Balram is exposed to the corruption and amorality that seem to define success in India. On the one hand he aspires to be just like his masters, but humility—to the point of obsequiousness—is so bred into him that he can’t shake it loose.
There isn’t a false note or a wrong move in Bahrani’s adaptation of The White Tiger. The director proved himself a peerless observer of human interaction long ago in such unforgettable films as Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo. The opening sequence of his subsequent film 99 Homes is another example of Bahrani’s extraordinary skillset. His experience has borne the richest fruit yet in this dark, daring portrait of a country being led by men without a conscience. The White Tiger is an altogether extraordinary film.
Now in theaters, the film debuts Friday January 22 on Netflix.