The White Tiger

 

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An acclaimed novel yields a film which despite its qualities might raise doubts.

 
White Tiger, The

Adarsh Gourav

 

The title of Ramin Bahrani's latest film refers to its central character, Balram Halwai, strikingly played by newcomer Adarsh Gourav whose potential clearly revealed here could make him another Dev Patel. Balram comes from a poor family living in an Indian village, but he is the narrator of his own story and at the outset he tells us that although he was once a servant he is now an entrepreneur. Based on the Booker-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger is an intriguing piece even if it fails to live up to the potential indicated by its opening scenes. Being set in India and filmed there, it could seem an unusual undertaking for Bahrani since he is an American of Iranian descent whose previous films have been relatively small-scale works. But in fact it is as personal an endeavour as any of them since Bahrani is a friend of Adiga and has wanted to film his novel ever since it appeared in 2008. Furthermore, despite being set on another continent, The White Tiger touches on themes which have been present in the director's earlier films (social injustice, class issues, the plight of the downtrodden) and the adaptation of the novel has been made by Bahrani himself.

 

Apparently Bahrani's one doubt in taking on this task was whether or not he could capture the tone of the book which, however serious its concerns, handles them with a confident touch of ironical humour. The opening scenes of The White Tiger suggest that he has succeeded. The film begins by showing a car with a drunken driver at the wheel leading to a fatal outcome. But what we see is cut off abruptly just as this key moment is reached: we hear Balram's voice interrupting to tell us that this scene will come later in his story. Very cleverly indeed this device tells us that the film will get darker while simultaneously encouraging us to relish the storytelling for its own entertainment value. Furthermore, this opening speech enables Balram to express his philosophy that cunning is required in order to succeed in a corrupt world and that he needs it if he is to move from the darkness of poverty into the light of material success. His intelligence tells him that most poor Indians accept their lot but that he himself is as rare as the white tiger and is the exception being akin to a chicken that is capable of getting out of the confining coop. 

 

This opening establishes what becomes a frequent use of voice-over narration but given the quality of the writing that is not a drawback. It certainly helps to bring out the tone as Balram takes us through the tale of how, after rejecting an arranged marriage in his village, he learns to drive a car and is thus able to infiltrate himself as a driver into the household of the local bigshot, a ruthless landlord known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). If Balram's scheme to move up in society echoes such classics as John Braine's novel Room at the Top filmed by Jack Clayton in 1958, the manoeuvres he adopts to get rid of a senior driver bring to mind Parasite (2019). In this way Bahram makes himself indispensable to The Stork's younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and to the wife he has acquired in America (Priyanka Chopra). Soon by accompanying this couple Balram comes to live in Delhi while also nursing ambitious personal aims in Bangalore. Yet another film is echoed here in that in time Ashok is revealed to be a weak man so that Balram emerges as the stronger figure: it's not quite the same as The Servant (1963), but one does think of that work. 

 

For much of its length The White Tiger feels like a success: all of the cast play well and Bahrani handles the piece at a good pace aided by the editing. However, getting through so much so quickly can make a film seem unduly long and that happens here for the running length is 125 minutes. Furthermore, although some humorous moments do surface later on, the film becomes more straightforwardly dramatic as it proceeds which is not a gain and there are also a few stylised moments which come to feel out of place. A drawback of another kind is that none of the main characters is really sympathetic and that starts to matter when the satirical element fades. Indeed, almost everybody is seen as unappealing. Although The White Tiger is critical of the exploitation of the poor, it also shows the villagers including Balram's granny (Kamlesh Gill) in an unattractive light. In addition, crooked politicians are depicted in a context that questions what India's supposed democracy amounts to in reality.

 

Given Balram's background, the audience might be ready to condone much of his behaviour, but when the road accident foreshadowed at the start returns at a midway point Bahram's attitude is alienating. Subsequently when he is betrayed by the family to which he has devoted himself that outcome might possibly restore our sympathy for him, but what he does next is even more unforgivable. It is after this that Balram breaks away to achieve success as the owner of a business, a section of the plot that is skimped in detail. But, where Citizen Kane was surefooted in showing tellingly the ironical transformation of its leading character, The White Tiger feels curiously detached. The ultimate revelation that in his quest for personal freedom Balram has become as bad as anyone yet without realising it does come over, but what starts as engaging satire fails to turn into a work that evokes pathos or tragedy as it shows where Balram's life has led him. The second half of the film seems to call for an emotional response but long before the close we are aware that we don't care a damn about Balram's fate. Had the initial tone been kept this would not matter, but presented as it is the longer the film went on less and less was I engaged by it. But it's certainly interesting and others may feel differently about it.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Mahesh Manjrekar, Perrie Kapernaros, Swaroop Sampat, Vijay Maurya, Nalneesh Neel, Kamlesh Gill, Vedant Sinha, Aaren Wan, Trupti Khamkar.

 

Dir Ramin Bahrani, Pro Ramin Bahrani and Mukul Deora, Screenplay Ramin Bahrani, from the novel by Aravind Adiga, Ph Paolo Carnera, Pro Des Chad Keith, Ed Ramin Bahrani and Tim Streeto, Music Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

 

Lava Media/Netflix/Noruz Films/ARRAY Filmworks-Netflix.
125 mins. India/USA. 2021. Rel: 22 January 2021. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.