The White Tiger
I hope it would not be to insulting to the three films I have already viewed this year to describe The White Tiger as the first “real” movie I have seen in January, but it certainly seems like it. After two somewhat forgettable documentaries and a disappointing sci-fi experiment, we’re into something that could conceivably be called Oscar-bait, or at least liable to catch some attention from awards committees somewhere. You know the type: character-driven dramas about plucky underdogs arising from inopportune circumstances.
But of course that doesn’t mean that The White Tiger can be dismissed out of hand. Based on the book of the same name by Aravind Adiga, it promised a well-worn narrative of rising from poverty, with plenty of potholes along the way, but in a setting that doesn’t make it to western screens enough, and with a cast that I knew little of but was interested in seeing. Let awards season begin then: was The White Tiger worthy of a few gongs, or doomed to be lucky to get even a sniff of a nomination somewhere?
Balram (Adarsh Gourav), from a position of wealth and power, narrates the story of his life: being born into abject poverty in rural India; finding escape by becoming the driver for the American-obsessed son (Rajkummar Rao) of his village’s cruel landlord; getting a glimpse at the high life in urban surrounds; having his entire understanding of his place in society tested by the treatment meted out to him by his uncaring superiors. In the end, Balram had to pay a high price to get to where he is, but was it a price worth paying?
The White Tiger is an interesting film, a very unique take on a (literal) rags-to-riches story. I mean, it starts with the main character declaring confidently that the next century will belong “to the brown and yellow man” as he commences a one sided dialogue with a visiting Chinese Premier. We will come to understand his antipathy for the west and for American impacts on Indian society (his “master”, a decent Rao, and his wife, Priyanka Chopra Jones, are the worst kind of “woke” stereotypes on-screen, full of unearned condescension and faux concern for the less fortunate).
It’s just one part of a pretty intriguing tapestry, that walks the line between jaw-dropping perversion and genuinely inspiring. Though an adherence to traditional tropes for this type of drama can be a bit off-putting, and the while experience does start to drag around 20 minutes before the end (and it does wrap things up a bit too quickly), for the most part this is a film that trips along nicely, and does the required legwork in getting you immersed in what, to someone like me, is a very alien world. Caste systems, ingrained political corruption being a fact of life, the most negative outcomes of globalisation, they are all here and explored in abundance.
Gourav is a bit of a revelation in this film, taking us from a beaten down member of India’s “small bellies” to the entrepreneur (a word he loves to use) who rules his own little part of India by the conclusion. He’s full of interesting narration (helped of course by the adapted script of director Rahmin Bahrani), not least his repeated parable of a chicken coop to describe the manner in which lower tier Indians happily acquiesce to a society that will seem them all end up under the metaphorical butchers knife. He’s darkly comic in one moment, surprisingly insightful in others, and always someone who we want to watch, whether he succeeds or not (think Emma Stone in The Favourite maybe, or even Brad Dourif’s Grima in The Lord Of The Rings).
The journey to get from that life of drudgery to something better takes us to a lot of really good drama: a constant battle with Indian tradition as exemplified by an uncaring grandmother; a fateful encounter with that Americanised couple who leave Balram facing prison time for something he didn’t do; and a realisation that there is only one way he is going to avoid a life living in a slum, and that way does not involve rubbing the feet of his masters. Gourav is a good enough actor to sell the gradual transformation, and to keep us believing that Balram, out of sheer desperation to escape a squalor must of us could never hope to comprehend, could bring himself to do the darkest of things.
One of the most critical aspects of a film like this is the likability of the protagonist, and The White Tiger has a mixed result there. On the one hand seeing Balram go from living in a countryside shack all the way up to the circumstances he finds himself in at the in medias reis opening is admirable, showcasing determination, intelligence, cunning, etc. On the other hand, Balram isn’t an especially nice person, who grows to know how best to manipulate people to his advantage, and to discard those that are of no worth to him, sometimes to a cold, ruthless extent. Where other films might leave it at that and saddle the audience with a protagonist they can neither like nor engage with, The White Tiger actually leans in to discussing these philosophical questions: to what degree is Balram beholden to the people around him, when those people treat him as badly as they do? Is living and dying in the “chicken coop” really the moral choice? And, to quote another morally ambiguous character, is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? Balram is an anti-hero through and through: his final success is not a narrative triumph, but just another question. Some may find these off-putting.
Comparisons to two pre-existing films are undeniable, and you probably know which ones I mean if you have seen the film or know even a moderate amount about it. The first is Slumdog Millionaire, owing to the setting, themes of escaping poverty and perhaps a general romanticism of a strong male lead character able to work beyond the dictates of society. But The White Tiger has romance exist only to a point, and there is no beating heart of relationship drama at the centre: Balram openly mocks the idea of being able to escape his circumstances by means of a game show, a swipe whose lack of subtlety must be considered altogether intentional. The other film, and perhaps a more apt comparison, is last years Parasite. While The White Tiger lacks that films sense of humour, it’s fantastical elements, and the overriding emphasis on the strength of blood ties, it is similar in many other ways: in portraying how in an uneven society both the haves and have-nots grow dependent on the other, how that society is more responsible for literal life-or-death situations than it might care to realise, and how efforts to break the walls of that society are usually pointless, and something to only dream about.
Balram challenges the audience fairly directly at the conclusion of the exercise, essentially presenting himself as having broken free of the “chicken coop” that is his society, and above the judgement of those who remain, in one way or another, still trapped inside. In this was a reminded a little but of the end of Wanted and its closing line of “What the fuck have you done lately?” delivered direct to camera. It’s maybe not quite as over the top, but the lack of subtlety in the message is clear in either case. It ties back into the problem if not exactly knowing whether Balram is someone to root for or not: boiling the question of class inequality down to “I can either kill and get ahead, or stay at this level for ever” doesn’t seem to me a good of approaching the issue, even if the assault on the ingrained strata of society for the previous two hours was not ineffective.
Bahrani’ss film looks pretty good, a bit different from his similarly themed but very differently set back catalogue, like 99 Homes. India is a nation of enough diverse landscapes and situations that a one-track cinematography style probably wouldn’t do the place justice, so the director mixes it up a bit. Earthy browns dominate the screen for scenes in Balram’s home village, and later sequences set in cities tend more towards the black and the neon. Balram’s home in what is essentially a car park represents a sort of gloomy underworld, set against the bright, modern Olympus of the higher apartments where his “master” lives: the rest of India is in an otherworldy gloom nearly always.
Always and anon, the lens captures an air of decay, dirt and a build-up of refuse, and not just in scenes set in rubbish dumps: there’s a moggy element to nearly every frame of The White Tiger. Bahrani still has the freedom to get a little creative separately from this more general sense, such as in a repeated flashback scene of Balram’s father being cremated, having died far too young firmly ensconced in the chicken coop, focusing up on his feet contorting in the flames, or in numerous scenes set in Balram’s erstwhile lodging in the car park, that have an almost ethereal quality.
I did enjoy The White Tiger, more than I thought that I would. Aside from the strength of the central performance, and the manner in which the film portrays the journey behind that performance, it is a movie that shines a light on a changing society and culture that seems ill-fit to serve the needs of literally a billion people, the vast majority of which are left behind, in the chicken coop. Touching on themes of class inequality, the negatives of globalisation and the moral weight of self-preservation against self-advancement, it’s an intelligent flick, equal parts thought provoking and engaging. It has a few problems with a sometimes too traditional structure (“X Years Earlier” really should die a death at this point) and perhaps is a tad too long for its own good, but other than that this a solid adaptation that tells a very important story. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).