Movie Review: “The White Tiger” (2021)

At one point in writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger,” which is out on Netflix today, the main character makes an oblique reference to “Slumdog Millionaire.” The point of it is to contrast one film with the other. This movie, our anti-hero Balram would have us know, is a darker and more serious tale.

Not having seen “Slumdog” in a few years, I don’t care to take up the argument on either side, but just on the face of it, the very act of making the reference serves a larger purpose. Like this movie, “Slumdog” is largely told in English while taking place in India. Danny Boyle’s film took home eight Oscars in its awards’ run and was massively successful. Who wouldn’t want that association?

Or, perhaps it’s just that Bahrani is smart enough to know that Western audiences tuning in because they know Priyanka Chopra Jonas remember “Slumdog” and will draw the association on their own. Consequently, when this movie references that one, the audience will feel literate and that, in turn, will make them feel smart. One should never discount what it means to allow the audience to pat themselves on the back.

Sure, perhaps that’s a cynical look at the world, but Adarsh Gourav’s character, Balram, is an exceptionally cynical man and this is an exceptionally cynical film. Balram is our narrator, largely telling the story as an email that he’s writing to the Premier of China, who is due to visit Bangalore, where Balram works. The tale Balram would have the Premier know is how he, this low caste child from a small village, became the business magnate that he is today. It is some story.

Bahrani gives us the smallest of hints about who Balram is in the present as he flips back to the past to show us how this mystery man got to be a success in Bangalore. We hear how Balram had a bright educational future taken away from him in order to help meet his family’s financial needs. We see how he convinced the family matriarch, his grandmother (Kamlesh Gill), to allow him to go off and learn to drive a car. In turn, the goal there was to ingratiate himself into the family of the village’s benefactor (if that’s the right word for a family that takes a cut of everything that happens there without living in the place) and become their second driver. Balram wants to work for the younger of the two sons, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). That, he figures as he starts in the job, will lead him to a decent life.

Crucially, there’s always a scheme. Always a way to advance. Always a way to move up. Always a way to do things like going from being the family’s second driver to the first.

This is in no small part where the genius of the movie lies. It is Balram telling us Balram’s story, a story that we know involves nefarious/illegal activity, but where he wants to paint himself as the hero. So, where does the truth of the tale lie? Is it Ashok’s family that opens his poor naïve eyes to how things work in India (that would be with bribes), even though we know that he doesn’t mind skirting appropriateness to get ahead from the start? We watch as this insanely charismatic schemer, a man who was a schemer from the start, tries to pitch himself as someone who just learned the truth from those who had been scheming for longer.

It is not just somewhat compelling, it is fully engrossing. Gourav is great at doing more than simply pulling the viewer in. He doesn’t have us merely wonder about Balram’s character, but rather brings us to where we really and truly want this guy to succeed. That is not small thing for a character we know turns if not towards evil than towards something worse than benign.

Much of the movie is pitched towards class discussions and distinctions. Balram spends a ton of time with Ashok and his wife, Pinky (Jonas), and we see the push and pull between the wealthy and the poor. This is framed loosely within India’s caste divide, which even Balram says really doesn’t exist anymore except as a separation between the haves and have-nots. Ashok and Pinky desire to do better for this man in their employ… except maybe when it threatens their own happiness; their own livelihood; their own position. It isn’t that they necessarily give in at those times, but rather that they are forced to confront truths they’d rather avoid.

Watching this film and seeing the machinations of everyone—because everyone has their own scheme to improve their lot—is rather stupendous. Bahrani’s script (based on a book from Aravind Adiga) keeps doling out information in dribs and drabs and rather than it feeling forced, it keeps us invested. It is fantastic. Beyond that, there’s a momentum to the thing once it gets going. The movie pushes the audience forward, refusing us the space to breathe and think about what’s going.

When the end finally does come, when we finally see Balram as he is when he’s telling the story, we stop and wonder. We’ve known that the whole movie was bringing us if not to this exact spot, to one not far off, and we’re still rooting for him; we’re still cheering for this guy. But, maybe, in cheering for him we, ourselves, have fallen down into the muck just a little bit. In a bit of brilliance, “The White Tiger” makes us know that it knows what it’s done to us. It’s simply tremendous.

photo credit: Netflix

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