Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Premise: Based on the novel by Aravind Adiga. Set in India, a young man (Adarsh Gourav) from a poor village secures a job as a driver to a powerful family. While in proximity to the economic and political elite, he learns about the nature of power and attempts to scale the social ladder.
What Works: The White Tiger plays as a cynical counterpoint to Slumdog Millionaire. Danny Boyle’s 2008 picture was essentially a fairytale in which a young Indian man from an impoverished background stuck to his integrity and used his wits and wiles to rescue the woman he loved. The White Tiger has a similar protagonist but the story takes a divergent path and the film is a critical and at times scathing portrait of Indian society. The story follows Balrum, a smart and ambitious young man whose family lives in poverty. Balrum wants a better life for himself and finagles a job as a driver for a wealthy family. He’s expected to turn over most of his earnings to his family but Balrum’s ambitions and pride strain his relationship with them. One of the remarkable aspects of The White Tiger is its moral ambiguity. Depending on the viewer’s point of view, Balrum’s regard for his family might be admirable or terrible. That speaks to the underlying theme of The White Tiger—the way in which capitalism has disrupted traditional Indian society. It could be seen as corrupting, and the film certainly makes that case, but it also might be liberating. The film’s ambiguity is not cowardice or indecisiveness; it’s complexity. Put in a position to observe the rich and powerful, Balrum realizes that the elite maintain their position through bribery and exploitation and that the very structure of Indian society will not allow him or anyone else to ascend the economic ladder. Balrum ultimately embraces a self-interested and cutthroat philosophy, one that serves his ambitions but leads Balrum to terrible choices. This is a smart and incisive story that’s told efficiently and subversively. The movie sets up certain expectations based on the paths these kinds of stories usually take and then subverts our expectations and follows the characters to startling place. The narrative makes the audience consider what a ruthless economic system does to people.
What Doesn’t: The White Tiger uses a framing device in which Balram narrates from the present tense and tells his life story in an email to a Chinese official who will be visiting India. The narration adds some depth to the film and it is well delivered but the framing device isn’t really necessary.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: The White Tiger turns the Horatio Alger formula on its head, thereby questioning the implicit values of those kinds of stories. The framing device notwithstanding, this is perspicuous storytelling with a subversive punch.
Episode: #843 (March 14, 2021)