The film is adapted and directed by film-maker Ramin Bahrani from the 2008 Booker prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga. The two are old friends from student days in America and have been talking about making the film ever since Adiga first had the idea for the story.
It’s a darkly comic satire on the economic reality, corruption and inequalities of Indian society today and the iniquitous caste system, which modern India denies yet which still exists.
The story’s anti hero is Balram (Adarsh Gourav) a bright boy born into a dirt poor village. He’s a white tiger, he tells us. One born only once in a generation. Balram’s education is cut short by his family’s poverty (and a fearsome grandmother who is determined his life will be as miserable as that of his forebears). However observing the methods of the family’s grasping and corrupt landlord, who has made his fortune from coal but still grabs every rupee he can from his poverty stricken tenants, Balram goes to Delhi and blags his way into a job as chauffeur to the landlord’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). Just back from America the couple see themselves as enlightened and modern, believing they are treating the embarrassingly servile Balram as an equal. A horrific accident however reveals that the couple’s enlightenment is but skin deep and also gives Balram his route to the wealthy entrepreneur life that his ambitious soul craves.
Gourav is perfectly cast as Balram. His ever smiling, eager to please exterior belied by his occasional cocky swagger. A man torn between his socialised destiny to serve a master and his secret desire to take that master’s place. In his servility Balram reminds one of Uriah Heap. Adiga is a fan of Dickens and Balram’s Indian journey from abject poverty to a higher place in society has certain echoes of some of Dickens’ tales of inequality and exploitation in Victorian England.
Rao and Chopra as Ashok and Pinky, while a lively and often comic couple in their own right, also embody an uncomfortable aspect of modern India in their entitled liberalism. This is an enjoyable tale but with a dark underbelly.
And beware of Balram’s entrepreneurial warning to us pale skinned ones: “White people are on the way out. It’s the century of the brown man and the yellow man and God save everyone else.”
The White Tiger is available to view on Netflix from 22nd January