A white tiger is a rarity, a product of a genetic anomaly, occurring naturally only once in about 10,000 births. The protagonist of The White Tiger, the new Netflix original movie, based on the 2008 Booker Prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga, sees himself as one. His aim is to escape the rooster coop, which he sees as the metaphorical trap for an entire class of humans stuck in an unending cycle of poverty, that they are unable, and in his mind unwilling, to break out of.
The White Tiger (running time 2 hr 8 mins) is based primarily in 2007 Delhi and 2010 Bangalore (the name change virus came to Karnataka in 2014 so it wasn't yet Bengaluru), and set as a narrative in the form of an email being written by the protagonist Balram Halwai to the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. I choose the word protagonist, and not hero, to describe him because he is not a hero in the conventional sense of the term, and certainly not in India, where heroes, real or reel, have no shades of grey. It starts with a wild, alcohol-fueled ride on the foggy, hazily lit, seemingly empty nighttime streets of Delhi. A woman at the wheel, her beau at her side, the shy driver in the back seat holding on for dear life. Cut to a swanky office in Bangalore where that same driver, now sporting a hipster beard, looking suave and arrogantly surveying his fleet of cars and drivers below. That shift in time and station in life instantly piques your curiosity and you strap in for the ride. But Slumdog Millionaire (2008) this ain't. In fact it explicitly calls out the difference with him spouting, "Don't think for a second there's a million rupee game show you can win to get out" when describing the struggle for upward mobility for the average Joginder. It then takes you to his childhood in Dhanbad, his realization of his status and how learning the language of the elite is a passport out of it, away from the grandmother who is the resident matriarch and not your typical doting dadi but a shrewd mercenary. He seeks and gets employment as "driver number two" in Delhi at his former feudal master of Dhanbad, ascribed the name the Stork and his sons, the violent Mongoose and the "foreign returned" Ashok with his NRI wife Pinky. As he gets more intertwined with their lives, his entrepreneurial spirit, confidence and ambition increase along with his resentment towards his masters. The line "Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love, or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?" sums up his and the movie's ethos.
Rajkummar Rao as Ashok and Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Pinky (she also doubles as one of the producers of the movie) are the most recognizable names on the marquee. They both display the requisite earnestness and savior complex that comes naturally to the diaspora when visiting and living in their native land. Once one has lived abroad, it is hard to ignore the inequality that seems the natural order of things and not worth getting flustered about to the domiciled citizenry. But it is an equally quixotic endeavor to think one can change it with good intentions. Priyanka is obviously more comfortable with the role than Rajkummar, who is not entirely in the skin of his character for once. Mahesh Manjrekar as the Stork is the stereotypical zamindar of Bollywood lore. Vijay Maurya as Mukesh, the Mongoose, who was very good in Tumhari Sulu (2017) and Gully Boy (2019) , is equally but quietly menacing. Kamlesh Gill as the non-stereotypical grandmother is a nice change to watch compared to the goody goody characters that they are usually portrayed as. Swaroop Sampat makes a welcome cameo as the politician called 'the Great Socialist". The star of the show though is Adarsh Gourav as Balram. It's a bravura performance from a relative newcomer. From the shy, hunched over body language that is the trademark of the servile, to the increasing confidence, steeliness, grit and guile, culminating in the self-rationalized, take-no-prisoners, do-whatever-it-takes attitude to move ahead, he explores the spectrum of human behavior. Director Ramin Bahrani, who is of Iranian descent, brings a fresh perspective that could only have been brought by a non-white, non-Indian. It's an amazing coincidence that the original book was dedicated to him by Adiga, when they were friends while at Columbia University in New York all those years ago.
There's usually a trap most such movies about India fall under where they romanticize the struggle or resort to poverty porn. Bahrani, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids it for the most part. He shows the willful disconnect that most urban Indians are in, living in a bubble of income inequality that can burst and come crashing down with breathtaking ease. The recent pandemic showed how dependent they are on their various forms of domestic help, and most of them were initially running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The seething reality at their doorsteps can quickly devolve into a jungle if the sleeping tigers awake.
January 30, 2021