Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize winner The White Tiger is dedicated to Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. Thirteen years after the publication of thenovel, Bahrani has written and directed the movie version of Adiga’s blistering satire on aspiration, opportunity and progress. The White Tiger is set in 2007 and captures some of the headiness of the decade’s promise of overnight economic success. Its exploration of the chasm between classes and the utility of crime as a shortcut to wealth is, however, timeless.
The tragicomic movie is the story of the backward caste Balram Halwai, who embraces the “half-baked” label bestowed upon him to fashion a grim success story. Balram also provides the acerbic and sometimes intrusive and redundant voiceover, holding forth on the injustice done to his people, the unique nature of Indian servitude, and the qualities of Indian entrepreneurship. Bahrani’s screenplay retains some of Adiga’s best lines, including the one that in India, a businessman must be “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time”.
Rampant and resilient inequity is at the movie’s heart. Balram’s crawl out of the “darkness” – a typically wretched corner of rural India – into the “light” – represented by Delhi and Bengaluru, is guided by circumstance and self-will. Balram (Adarsh Gourav) combines obsequiousness and canniness to land a job as a driver with the upper-caste family that governs his village. It’s a clearly delineated food chain, with the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) at the top, and the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya) in the middle.
Only the youngest son has a name, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). He is more polished than the rest on account of his years in America, his Indian-origin wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), and dreams of exiting the family’s coal business and moving into outsourcing.
As the couple’s driver, Balram gets to closely observe the one per cent. His own living arrangement is in an insect-infested basement in the car park, but in his employers’ swish, golden-hued apartment, Balram learns something new every day. The lesson that propels him from the downstairs to the upstairs is that he is entirely disposable.
In Balram’s twisted world, upward mobility is perfectly consonant with a downward spiral. Fear, corruption and the exploitation of readily available surplus labour are the building bricks of the Stork’s empire. Balram’s contortions to become like Ashok, whom he initially idolises, are an act of entrepreneurship – the business of survival.
The White Tiger is narrated mostly in flashback and layered by Balram’s knowing, snarky commentary. Over 125 minutes, Bahrani retraces Balram’s steps from the floor-wiping supplicant in the village and later in Delhi to the suited-booted owner of a fleet taxi service in Bengaluru.
This driver’s insurrection loses some of its savage edge in the screen adaptation. Bits of the exposition of Balram’s early years are clunky. The movie gets into gear once Balram moves to Delhi with his employers.
A potential problem for Indian audiences is the dialogue in English, one of the major dividers between the served and the servers in this country. In the English-language source material, Balram’s ability to communicate in the tongue of his masters is a necessary conceit. In the Netflix original film, which is also in English and is aimed at a global viewership, Balram’s wide-ranging vocabulary and prowess with an alien language demolishes one of the biggest walls that would normally have kept him out.
The scenes in which Balram advises Ashok that “diversifying” is the way ahead or when Pinky earnestly tells him of how her parents in America own a “bodega” sound jarring in English. These scenes are far more believable in the Hindi-language version, as are also the conversations between Balram and the other drivers. (Raj Trivedi serves as the Hindi consultant, while the dialogue has been translated by Sumit Arora.)
Caste too has been broken down for global audiences. Balram’s battle is depicted as one of class. There are only two destinies in India, he declares, to eat or get eaten.
No quiz show can pull you out of your gutter, Balram also observes. The dig is aimed at Danny Boyle’s fairy tale Slumdog Millionaire. The White Tiger, however, falls short of another Oscar-decorated movie, The Parasite, in delivering a wholly convincing portrayal of a righteous and necessary assault on immoral affluence.
In a mostly clinical narrative, some warmth is generated for Ashok and Pinky, who are well-meaning and decent but also spineless. Ashok’s over-reliance on Balram for company – he seems to have absolutely no friends in Delhi – and Pinky’s empathy for her chauffeur ensure that Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas come off as misguided rather than monstrous. The Stork and the Mongoose don’t budge in their cruelty. Mahesh Manjrekar and Vijay Maurya are well cast as representatives of an ancient order that is never going to go away.
But this is Balram’s story, and the actor who plays him stoops to conquer in every imaginable way. Adarsh Gourav, a few kilos lighter, his hair slicked back, his shoulders bent forward and an inveigling smile on his face, is in blazing form. Under Bahrani’s direction, Gourav turns out a riveting performance, perfectly rising up to the challenge of making a heartless murderer into the movie’s only true moral centre.
In a standout scene, Balram is moved and then horrified to find out the real reason for his bosses’ sudden show of sympathy. Balram continues to disappear within himself but then glowers upright when alone – an emotional journey that unerringly finds its destination through Gourav’s complete immersion in Balram Halwai’s transformation from a driver for others to the driver of his own future.