Roar writer Ishaan Rahman reviews Netflix’s release, The White Tiger.
The White Tiger, directed by Ramin Bahrani, is an adaptation of the novel by Aravind Adiga. The film is narrated by Balram Halwai, played by Adarsh Gourav, who comes from a destitute, rural village in India.
Speaking retrospectively, Balram tells the story of becoming a driver for an affluent family that ruthlessly strips his village for rent. He gets to know each of the family members from the patriarch known as “The Stork” (Mahesh Manjrekar) to the churlish elder brother, derogatorily referred to as “the Mongoose” (Vijay Maurya), who has a reputation for slaughtering the families of servants that wrong his father. Most importantly, are his relationships with the younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his Indian-American girlfriend (Priyanka Chopra) who both seem to treat him better than the rest of the family.
The film follows Balram as he slowly learns about the family’s business dealings, which involved bribing local politicians. Through this, he uncovers the deeply corrupt nature of India’s economy and democracy. It demonstrates the ruthlessness that is required to take advantage of India’s rapid economic growth and newfound status on the world stage. At the same time, the film portrays the longstanding, archaic caste system that puts down the majority of Indians while a wealthy elite profits.
It is this caste system, which the film explores so thoroughly. The Balram narrating from the future is full of rage and disgust at the way the Stork’s family treated him while the one we see in real time is submissive even when he is yelled at, beaten or insulted.
While Balram receives a salary from the family, it’s hard not to see his role as a moderated version of slavery. As mentioned, Balram tells stories of “the Mongoose” killing the families of servants that stole from them; that does not leave the servants with much freedom. The lower castes’ servitude mentality means that they often believe that they deserve, or even desire, to serve their masters. From here, the film shows Balram waking up to the reality of his servitude, which begins when his loyalty to the family is betrayed.
The performance of the film is incredible with Gourav perfectly portraying Balram’s transition from a submissive, innocent and “sweet” (as described by Ashok) servant who would do anything for his master to the awakened, hardened businessman, who narrates the story. Balram’s interactions with Ashok are especially well-done as we see often see the limits of the latter’s liberal views. In one scene, Ashok may chat with Balram as if they were buddies while in the next he acts as if he’s a typical member of the wealthy family.
The film’s premise, which is about the working-class, looked-down-upon and undervalued rising up against a self-serving elite seems familiar; Parasite and Joker, both released in 2019, explored similar themes. As with those films, The White Tiger makes us question whether we should admire or abhor the protagonist. However, it is also a realistic and damning portrayal of Indian society. As world leaders shower praise on India’s pluralistic liberal democracy and seek to strengthen economic ties with a rising superpower, The White Tiger will encourage viewers, particularly in the west, to take a closer look.