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Netflix Review: The White Tiger

April 20, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay

An Indian entrepreneur’s rise from the bottom to the top of the class system is charted in filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s latest film The White Tiger, a dark and incredibly entertaining drama that kept me hooked from start to blistering finish.

The film’s title metaphorically refers to an incredibly rare creature, drawing an analogy between the endangered white tiger and the rarity of someone escaping from an impoverished upbringing. The main character is Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a young man from a poor village in India who was pulled out of school at a young age to work, despite showing academic promise.

What sets him apart from his family is that he has ambition. When he overhears that a powerful businessman nicknamed The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) needs a second driver for his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has just returned from the United States with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jones), Balram decides to take his destiny into his own hands and literally shows up at their gate, asking for the job. He is hired, which puts his foot in the door of a rich man’s world.

But Balram soon realizes that he is still viewed as little more than a servant, who is disposable to his rich masters. While Ashok and Pinky try to treat him with kindness, it borders on condescension, and The Stork is openly cruel and dismissive. As Balram witnesses the corrupt lengths the family goes to in order to protect their status, which leads to a grave betrayal, he grows increasingly resentful of their monetary and social status. But the only way out is up, and he starts making a series of rash decisions in order to enrich himself. The story only grows darker from here, barrelling towards inevitable violence.

The film opens with Balram in the backseat of a car, with Ashok in the passenger seat and Pinky recklessly driving, clearly under the influence. The film freezes just as someone steps in front of the vehicle. We will come back to this moment later on. But, by opening the film in this way, Bahrani is able to tease out that this won’t be a conventional or particularly inspiring rags-to-riches story, but rather a gripping look at the true cost of climbing the social ladder in a society historically divided into castes.

Based on Aravind Adiga’s bestselling novel of the same name, The White Tiger is a darkly compelling and extremely watchable film. Bahrani, who also wrote the adapted screenplay and earned an Oscar nomination for it, directs with supreme confidence, crafting a gripping crime drama that feels like a companion piece to his excellent 2014 real estate thriller 99 Homes. Despite running just over two hours, The White Tiger moves at a breathless pace, with fast-paced editing that at times emulates the feel of an American gangster movie.

Balram narrates the film through an email that he is writing to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is going to be visiting the country, trying to impress him with his story of how he pulled himself out of poverty. This propulsive voiceover, which details his ambitions, aspirations, and dark inner thoughts, is what drives the film forward, in a way that recalls Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Gourav carries the film with an engaging performance, doing a good job of portraying Balram’s increasingly dark character arc from submissive servant to powerful entrepreneur, his newfound confidence inching dangerously towards hubris.

It’s interesting to watch how Balram’s personality and demeanour changes as he starts to view himself differently in the world. But is he ascending or descending? We are left to wonder. Similar to Bahrani’s previous films, The White Tiger is once again centred around a working class protagonist faced with complex moral dilemmas, offering no easy answers. The film does have somewhat of a satirical tone to it, but this is satire that stings. Bahrani’s film finds its teeth in how it ruthlessly portrays Balram’s rise to the top, and the cynical choices and sacrifices that he has to make in order to get there.

The story skewers the Indian caste system, and how it keeps those who are poor at the bottom, while allowing only a select few to ever escape from it. Balram breaks down the caste system into only two groups – “men with big bellies and men with small bellies.” The literal haves and have-nots, social status decided by how much food you can afford to eat. In a continuation of the analogous way animal names are used throughout the story, he describes living in poverty through the analogy of a rooster coop, being stuck in a cage knowing that you are next in line to get your head cut off.

“Don’t believe for a second there’s a million rupee game show you can win to get out of it,” Balram warns us in voiceover, offering a cheeky callback to Slumdog Millionaire. In many ways, The White Tiger is an inverse of an uplifting movie like that one, offering a much darker but nonetheless compelling look at what it takes to escape poverty in a system that makes it all but impossible.

The White Tiger is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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