Director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker-winning novel The White Tiger looks at first like it’s going to be one of those “trickster” stories about a low-born person cutting a swathe through life using their natural-born smarts.
When we meet him, Balram is clearly a man who has done well out of life. The White Tiger will play out in flashback, but for now Balram’s nice suit and fussy facial hair tell us all we need to know about his success in the world. How he got there is what the film is about. From poor beginnings in a dirt-poor village, where he appeared to be condemned to a life of drudgery in spite of being obviously clever, he makes it out of the village and lucks into the employ of the local landlords. They’re racketeers in essence, but follow the money.
Balram does a fair bit of inveigling – first to get out of the village and away from his sharp-eyed, avaricious Granny (Kamlesh Gill, excellent) and then to get employed as a driver to wealthy patrons known only by their nicknames – the patrician and severe Stork (Mahesh Manjrikar) and his sadistic son, Mongoose (Vijay Maurya).
Balram knows his place. Not only is he poor, he is low caste. A life of driving an air-conditioned car, a clean uniform and a room of his own – albeit with a thin mattress on a concrete floor – is luxury beyond his wildest imaginings. Balram is happy.
And maybe he would have stayed that way, but for the arrival on the scene of the Stork’s US-educated son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), both of them pampered and steeped in western egalitarian values and uneasy with the whole master/servant relationship. The Stork and the Mongoose, Ashok’s father and brother, have no such qualms.
“Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love. Or love them behind a facade of loathing?” asks Balram in voiceover at one point, boiling the film down to a soundbite. The trickster element has been retired by this point, sadly, and The White Tiger has become a disquisition on the relationship between master and servant. Balram the endlessly smiling, helpful, do-anything skivvy drives Ashok and Pinky about on business (bribery, mostly) and pleasure (drinking, mostly) before finally being asked to do something that forces the scales to fall from his eyes.
The flashback structure – Balram speaking from a position of obvious success – robs the film of much of its will he/won’t he drama, though how Balram became a man of means is still up for grabs to an extent. Largely, though, we’re thrown for interest onto the state of play of the psyche of a servant under pressure. It’s something books do much better than films, no matter how much voiceover there is, and there is plenty here.
The quality of the film-making is obvious. Adarsh Gourav makes an amazing Balram – cowering one second, basking in reflected glory the next, smarting from some insult or reprimand another. In fact, there isn’t a bad performance in The White Tiger, and this extends to even the smallest roles.
Bahrani’s particular skill is world-building, as we first saw in his debut Man Push Cart, and that is The White Tiger’s strongest suit. The other drivers Balram mixes with, uneasily on account of the relentless sexual innuendo, and the extended family back at Balram’s native village, both feel absolutely genuine. Veteran Italian DP Paolo Carnera’s beautifully composed lensing and Chad Keith’s production design locate us as effortlessly in the penthouses as in the underground car parks or out in the village.
There’s a lot to like here, though the sense of there being simply too many chapters in the story, many of them reiterating what we already know, make The White Tiger a film about the journey rather than the destination.
The White Tiger – Get the book on which the film is based, at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021