The White Tiger is a tale of servitude, anger, and affection, and what its hero calls “the contented smile that comes to the lips of a servant who has done his duty to his master.” In this film, he smiles a lot, but it’s about something other than contentment.
It’s a professional reflex and a personal keeping pattern, a hollow smile kept in place while the servant determines whether his master is truly despised, and while he also decides if he may be the master himself someday.
It is an enigmatic smile where he wonders if, behind a façade of loving, he hates the master or loves this role model behind a façade of hating.
And this desperate fight for survival is taking place in India, which is ambiguously subservient to China, Britain and the United States’ globalized employers, all of whom want India’s cheap labor for their outsourcing. Adapted by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 bestseller and Booker Prize winner, the drama is also directed with fantastic narrative energy by Bahrani.
The film is born of satirical pessimism about a feudal-gangster culture that is depicted in 21st-century India as alive and well – and that thrives amid other countries’ cynical exploitation and arrogance.
In this story, Bahrani finds the same struggle with poverty as in Man Push Cart (2005) and a toxic mentor-mentee bromance comparable to that in 99 Homes (2014), in which the hero also works for the people who humiliated his family. As Balram, a probable boy from a dirt-poor village who once profoundly impressed his teachers with his academic flair, Adarsh Gourav gives a great performance as a white boy.
But the disastrous fall of his family into poverty led him to drop out of school, and Balram, an adult, is keenly aware of the wealthy landowning family watching over his suffering, seizing their rent, even though they are already wealthy from coal exports. The hatchet-faced patriarch named “Stork” (played by director and actor Mahesh Manjrekar) and his boorish elder son, the “Mongoose” (Vijay Maurya), are there.
But there is also Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the more liberal, tolerant younger sibling, who has just returned from the U.S. with his Indian-American wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra).
The ruthlessly ambitious Balram makes it his mission to grovel strategically before this ruling family and soon obtains a job as the personal driver of Ashok and Pinky. He is treated kindly – up to a point – by this modern-minded, Americanized young couple who pride themselves on being good to the workers, living modestly in the dank basement of their luxurious Delhi apartment block.
But a disastrous accident brings their relationship to a crisis and Balram’s secret self-loathing. The White Tiger is a risky self-improvement adventure in the city’s teeming streets, inspired by Dickens and Balzac’s own professed love of Adiga, and it is a truly fun novel, if not without flaws.
I could have done without Balram introducing himself to his story at its greatest moment of car accident drama and disaster through the hackneyed’ 90s freeze frame/voiceover system that introduces us to his story – anything but a pinprick into silence.
It makes for a moment of irony that is somewhat misjudged.
And it is arguably unconvincing that the film implies that the servants might even get away with it because they’re all indistinguishable, after showing us how the ruling class gets away with murder because the lower-caste victims are all indistinguishably the same.
But I liked Balram’s realization that the true relief of the servant is not to dream that he killed his master and then wake up to discover that he did not, but to dream that he timidly failed to murder his master and then wake up in luxury to discover that after everything he has.
There is no real support for Balram’s own kin.
Balram would often say that his true family is Ashok and Pinky, and even though this is a cruel perversion of the facts, this fatso clan often does not seem any more callous and indifferent than the clan of Balram itself. It is crucial that Balram shows no great interest in marriage: whatever romantic energies inside him lie dormant, he must be absolutely and completely