The White Tiger

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Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger.
Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger.
Photo: Tejinder Singh Khamkha/Netflix


White Tiger




3/5 Stars


Based on the best selling novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, White Tiger tells the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a poor young man living in the slums of India with his large family and few prospects. When he spots a wealthy married couple who just returned from America, he sees a great opportunity to be a loyal servant to someone in India's upper class and inveigles his way into being their driver. He is not, however, treated particularly well by the rich family, and after being subjugated to harsh living conditions, constant degradation from his "masters", and nagging from his family at home to send them most of his money, Balram starts looking for a way to elevate his own station in life.


Writer/director Ramin Bahrani has had a varied career over the past two decades. From numerous documentaries, short films, and mid-budget feature films that include critical hits like 99 Houses and Goodbye Solo (as well as the occasional misfire like his very badly-received Fahrenheit 451 adaptation), he may not quite have lived up to the title of "the new great American director", as the late, beloved US film critic Roger Ebert called him in 2009, but he has certainly made a valiant stab at it.

Adapting the hit novel by Aravind Adiga, Bahrani had added another feather to his cap by turning The White Tiger into a film that does a pretty great job of mixing a Hollywood filmmaking style with an authentically Indian story. At least from where I sit. It has to be said that some Indians have taken very strongly against the film, but it's unclear whether that's because it is such a departure from Bollywood, that it deals so heavily with Indian class warfare, or because they find it fairly unrepresentative of their culture.

Whatever the case, though, it's rare to see a Western film about India that doesn't feel like it's written from a tourist's perspective. It has plenty of slick Hollywood veneer with fourth-wall-breaking narration, dark humour, vaguely non-linear storytelling and striking cinematography by Paolo Carnera that eschews the bright colours of Bollywood for something more along the lines of a Hollywood crime film, but I could have sworn that it was written and directed by someone who was born and raised in India. It wasn't, though. Bahrani is an American of Iranian descent.

Once you get past the singular nature of its East-meets-West aesthetic, the film is more of a mixed bag. It's clearly a beautifully put together piece of work, the acting is impeccable (Adarsh Gourav, especially, wows as our (anti?) hero and setting a classic tale of class warfare in what is perhaps the country most divided by class brings all-new depth to a well-trod trope. Unfortunately, I would be lying if I said that I found it entirely dramatically engaging or that its dark humour entirely worked for me.

Though its Indian setting and its examination of India's caste system that, even in this day and age, doesn't just draw a sharp line between rich and poor but between "master" and "servant", is uniquely enlightening, horrifying and fascinating, the actual story it tells is fairly rote and – dare I say it – plodding. Also, though I appreciate the attempts at dark humour, this aspect of the film seldom lands with enough force to either raise a laugh or to give the action a sufficiently satirical edge.  

It's not simply that the story is fairly predictable – which it is – but that once you get past the things that are interesting about the film, you're left with something that is ultimately overly straightforward and frequently monotonous in the repetitiveness of watching our hero constantly being crapped on by his "betters" or by the relationship he has with his "masters", Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Ashok's Indian-American wife, Pinky (a very good Priyanka Chopra Jonas in her most substantial role to date). The film probably would have worked better for me if I were to have seen it in a cinema, but, at home, it constantly lost the war for my attention with all the other sorts of media that await all of us with the click of a mouse button.

(Incidentally, I love my streaming services – be it Netflix or Deezer – but this is one of the major, detrimental effects of being so spoiled for choice.)

And then there's the Parasite effect. It is, no doubt, brutally unfair to compare The White Tiger to Bong Joon Ho's masterpiece, Parasite, but the proximity and subject matter of both films made it a comparison that's pretty hard to avoid. However much I admire The White Tiger, and for all that is clearly good at it, Parasite does shine a direct light on its failings. Parasite is constantly surprising, fearlessly original, propulsive, and both funny and razor-sharp in its political commentary. For all its virtues, The White Tiger isn't really any of those.  


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