A different beast
The White Tiger is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel of the same name. The film deals with caste politics and showcases the rich-poor divide that exists in India. It offers a commentary on what’s wrong with our country, where even after so many years of democracy, the mighty still rule over those with lesser means. In the film’s somewhat lopsided worldview the only way up for the poor is through crime and politics. Director Ramin Bahrani has made the film for Western audiences. Hence, all we see is abject poverty at one hand and high-society lifestyle on the other. It’s as if the great Indian middle class, which is driving the world economy forward by its buying power, simply doesn’t exist. This division into the haves and have-nots is too simplistic indeed.
On one end of the spectrum is Balram Halwai (Adash Gourav), who has studied a little as a child, knows how to speak Hindi, and his ambition is to become the driver of Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the younger son of his village zamindar (Mahesh Manjrekar). Ashok, who has studied in America, is married to Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) an Indian girl born and raised in America. While the zamindar and his elder son (Vijay Maurya) treat Balram like he’s only a rung above being an animal, the only people who treat him as a human being are America returned Ashok and Pinky. Pinky, in particular, is the sole humanitarian in the film. She constantly eggs him to rebel, to not take things lying down. Pinky is also guilty of running over a child while drunk driving. A crime which Balram is forced to take the blame for. Does it sound familiar to a well-known hit and run case in Mumbai? His inability to say no further propels him to break the invisible chains around him, leading to a night of crime, rebellion, but ultimately redemption for him.
The screenplay is full of discrepancies. Ashok, much against his wishes, is shown doing too many deals in Delhi — for what rhyme or reason, we don’t know. His father and brother are shown travelling in the sleeper compartment on a train. Again, this smacks of ignorance as no rich person will do so. Perhaps the most irritating thing is that the common man, the drivers, Balram’s relatives, are shown speaking in English among themselves. Now, a driver might speak to his employers in English but will not do so in the company of his peers. Also, since when did the Pajero become the apex of luxury cars in Delhi among the rich?
As said earlier, the film just hints at the class, caste and religious divide. It barks but doesn’t bite. Maybe it’s the director’s ignorance with India — Adiga’s book is only just a reference point, after all, or maybe he was advised not to dig too deep. Whatever the reason may be, it leaves you with an unsatisfied feeling. The lack of depth is buoyed by some wonderful acting. Priyanka Chopra has given a great performance as Pinky who isn’t used to the patriarchal ways of her in-laws and openly rebels against them. Her reaction shots to their casual misbehaviour with the servants are spot on. And her chemistry with Rajkummar Rao crackles as well. They very much look like a yuppie couple who don’t quite fit and should definitely go back to America. We wish there was more of Priyanka in the film but it’s not Pinky’s story. Rajkummar Rao too seems so natural in his role as the younger son who has forgotten that his family are basically gangsters. He’s caught between two extremes and is unable to decide where he belongs. Rao showcases his character’s helplessness superbly. The film rests squarely on Adarsh Gourav’s shoulders, however. He’s Balram personified. He’s so seamless in his performance that one forgets one’s watching an actor at work. It’s as if a candid camera is following someone around and is magically privy to the person’s thoughts.
We’ll reiterate that The White Tiger has been made with the Western audience in mind and further reinforces the stereotype of India being a poor, third world country. The human drama it brings forth thankfully rises above the cliches…
Trailer : The White Tiger
Pallabi Dey Purkayastha, January 22, 2021, 5:00 PM IST
STORY: Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) was born into oblivion – a rustic upbringing, deplorable
home that stinks of hunger and sadness, forced to drop out of school even before he had started
learning. But, this nonconformist had a dream, to break free from the shackles of the ‘rooster
retelling of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning book by the same name and it is as
pitch-dark as it is funny.
REVIEW: It’s butterflies and rainbows for Master Balram Halwai in the pretermitted village of
Laxmangarh as a very generous education officer has picked him for a better shot at life and
learning in the capital city of Delhi. That is until his rickshaw-pulling, debt-riddled father has
tuberculosis and they must walk all night to get to a hospital two villages south of theirs. He doesn’t
make it and the kid’s solipsistic grandmother – ironically named Kusum ji (meaning Safflower) – pulls him and his big brother out of school to work at the nearby tea shop. When the father was alive, he was tied in servitude to a ruthless feudal lord with old money from digging the coal mines of
Dhanbad – named The Stork (Mahesh V. Manjrekar) – who would extract every penny out of the
barely-fed, overworked, daily labourers who were drowning in a mountain of debt to the man.
Even at a tender age, the dropout is simmering and calls the stay-faithful-to-your-master-till-death mentality a ‘rooster coop’ – a state of being where generations of downtrodden people were brainwashed into believing that they, at all costs, must serve and surrender to their masters. But Balram is a charming little rebel in this forsaken family. “I need 300 rupees to learn driving and I shall return all of it,” he begs of his granny but, the old lady wouldn’t budge; the master manipulator in him drops the bait of sending all of his salary to the family at the end of every month and voilà! The deal is sealed! The Stork’s younger, America-return son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his inter-faith wife, Pinky madam (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), are back in town and are looking for a second driver for their car. The real story begins when the less fortunate meets the uber fortunate and how the clash of these two worlds gives birth to a white tiger – a rare breed, believed to be born once in every generation.
Truth be told, the trailer of Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s (’99 Homes’, ‘Men Push Cart’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’) ‘The White Tiger’ did not inspire much enthusiasm in us and had us believe that it is but another dramatic retelling of an outsider’s understanding of India. That it is an extension of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ sans that million-dollar question – the poor will be glorified and the rich, demonised – and long, wide b-rolls of starved bodies and scrawny faces popping up every now and then to show the ‘real, poor India’. Wrong! If anything, ‘The White Tiger’ is a mirror image of what (some may say) this country has been reduced to – with the privilege of a regular overflow of cash being in the hands of a select (read corrupt) few, while the have-nots perish to dust because unfortunately they’re – born poor, stay poor, learn to live poor and die poor. But, in Bahrani’s world, a pesky, little conniving rat called ‘the rich Indian’ is no different from a helpless poor Indian trying to stay alive. Balram’s humble upbringing may have played a role in asking for a salary cut ‘as it was too much for him’ but it is this same man who employed cacophony, deception and became a shameless stooge to get the job he thought would change his fate.
Bahrani’s protagonist is a hot boiling pot, ready to trickle down at the slightest provocation. But,
there is this inner tension within him that he must silence – on one hand, he is devoted to his
employer and his abusive family with soldier-like loyalty and in another, his prying eyes often given
in to the greedy animal within, wherein he has these intense romantic moments with that bag full of
cash Ashok walks with, in and out of various government offices. “Do we loathe our masters behind
a facade of love – or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?” he questions himself. More often
than not, submission cancels out gluttony. The narrative is an amalgamation of class distinction,
coupled with casteism that our nation has been plagued with for ages, while politics and crooked
politicians paint the backdrop of this social drama with catharsis.
Before Balram could even think about being an entrepreneur, a lady politician from ‘chota jaat’ –
wittily called ‘The Great Socialist’ – has climbed up the ranks, and he must quench his insatiable
thirst of rolling over to the other side of the fence. “If only a man could spit his past out so easily”, he
quips, while brushing his teeth after having being rebuked for, well, just trying to get by. A certain
Wen Jiabao, the then Chinese Premier, is planning a visit to India and he must tell him all in a letter:
his hardships and how he catapulted to success, but most importantly, how he became the white
tiger of his generation. “America is yesterday, the future is India and China,” Balram sweet-talks the
The opening shot of the film had us crack up: after all, it is only in Bollywood that you freeze a frame
and go back in time to tell the story as it unfolded. As we progress, the lines start to get blurred.
Feudal lord becomes family while the self-righteous drop the façade as life throws them under a
bulldozer. Balram is the dinner-table gossip among his peers, “People are talking about you…
that you have been muttering things to yourself,” informs Vitiligo (Nalneesh Neel). Balram doesn’t bother; he only wants to be rich. Not sane, not moral, just rich. The narrative benefits from the dark-comedy treatment as almost every other character imparts Sadhguru-level philosophy. “You were looking for the key for years. But the door was always open,” tells Pinky madam. In the initial moments of complete naivety, when the sadism of a big-city lifestyle was smiling from afar, Balram protests when Vitiligo questions the integrity of his malik, “Mr. Ashok doesn’t do any of these things. He is a good man.” “He is a good man?” screams Vitligo, “He is a rich man!” The cold stare in Vitiligo’s eyes gives away his hopelessness towards life and those ruling the game.
Adarsh Gourav wasn’t a household name when this movie was announced but, we guess that’s
about to change. The actor has a penchant for intricate details and you can tell: acing that colloquial
North Indian accent, mannerisms of a troubled persona and that of a man who was once innocent
and immune to the darkness of the world. Although he is consistently inconsistent as Balram – you
know, coming off as a loony who devices deathly plans through loud monologues, and also goes out
to his master’s mansion to apply oil on his hair carefully masking his hideous plans – Adarsh has
devoured Balram with childlike sincerity. On several occasions, the actor does drop the accent
and speak fluent English but those moments are so rare and don’t really distract from an otherwise
Rajkummar Rao’s Ashok is a money man who has not been given a crash course in life – shark in
political dealings and bribe distributions, lonely in love. Priyanka Chopra Jonas is, like Balram’s
character rightly assesses, the one who didn’t care about societal traditions. Her character Pinky is
the rebel in a family that doesn’t do rebellion good. Both Rao and Priyanka embody that class of men
who are self-pressured into being nice to the lower class. Why? Because they are educated and it is
the right thing to do (until, it is not). These two fine performers glide into the shoes of their
respective roles and act as a catalyst to the big, explosive climax we knew would come but weren’t
In a film of this stature, where the writing is taut and the dialogues memorable, rendering a witty
conclusion is a humongous task. But we try. The closing shot shows a boastful Balram breaking the
fourth wall and with those piercing, rage-filled eyes, tells us, “I’ve switched sides. I have broken
away from the coop.” The smirk and that air of arrogance are self-explanatory – no, Balram is not a
good man anymore, just rich!