▶︎ The White Tiger is streaming on Netflix.

Doubtless destined to be programmed repeatedly with feelgood shanty-town fairytale Slumdog Millionaire (2008) in a sharp-versus-shiny double bill, The White Tiger is a spikily cynical picaresque drama that delights in denouncing India’s vast social inequalities and the ubiquity of caste discrimination and corruption. A blackly funny tragi-comic tale adapted from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel, it traces smart rural youth Balram’s ruthless and opinionated climb from the ‘dark’ India of impoverished servitude into the ‘light’ India of wealth and opportunity. 

Director Ramin Bahrani’s long-held and strong interest in the troubles of the largely-invisible poor, in neorealistic pieces like Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), fits him well to adapt it, although his status as Adiga’s friend and original dedicatee of the novel turns out to be both blessing and drawback. He gets the reckless tonal shifts just right, with a roaring, attention-grabbing opener where Balram’s drunk employer Pinky Madam (a sympathetic-yet-selfish Priyanka Chopra Jonas) kills a child beggar in a Delhi night-time hit-and run, while Balram (Adarsh Gourav) gawps from the back seat.

At which point, the film hands over to Balram’s caustic voiceover, reversing into his juicy life-story, laced with slyly outraged editorial asides on the plight of India’s poor, his narration elegantly lashing together his memoir and the choppy collages of teeming Indian street life illustrating his scathing social commentary. 

Balram’s sardonic explanation of the almost feudal oppression that locks millions of Indian domestic servants into ultra-low-paid jobs makes their plight vividly real. But the framing device, taken from the book, of having successful businessman Balram narrate his life-story as an unsent boastful email to a visiting Chinese premier, feels clunky and grandstanding, its talky flash-forwards frequently interrupting the film’s action. Bahrani’s script is also a tad over-respectful, lifting large if well-chosen chunks of voiceover direct from the book, as the film rattles engagingly through Balram’s wretched childhood and his scheme to get to Delhi as the driver of friendly US-educated Ashok, son of the local landowner.

Adarsh Gourav as Balram and Rajkummar Rao as Ashok in The White Tiger

Despite all the narrative to-and-fro-ing, the film is pretty linear compared with the ratcheting surprises of 2020’s scheming-servant hit Parasite, whose social satire was subtler and less splenetic. Here, to underline Balram’s theme of Two Indias, Bahrani’s visuals create spatial contrasts, Ashok’s gilded skyscraper flat as light, spacious and secure as Balram’s basement garage cubicle is dark, crowded and dangerous. Only in their expensive car is the power dynamic reversed – when Balram is driving, he’s in charge. But when he is shockingly betrayed by Ashok’s family, this pacy film idles while Balram stews in his misery, making a dawdling two-hour story from what should have been a crackling 100 minutes. 

That said, it’s a rich, enjoyably immersive character study, its watchful close-ups steeping us in Balram’s country-to-city-progress from cheerful chancer to unrepentant avenger, the rare ‘white tiger’ who can buck the system. Painting Indian family life as a grim trap for rich and poor alike takes nerve (Balram’s grasping granny is as exploitative as Ashok’s corrupt father, who uses Ashok to bribe Delhi’s politicians). But under Balram’s gimlet eye it joins the skewed political and economic systems as yet another dysfunctional, life-shredding institution.

Yet there is a twisted bond that counts for this loner, his relationship with Ashok cycling, with a faint homoerotic echo of Losey’s The Servant (1963), through the roles of acolyte, caretaker, confidant and swindler into violent criminal. Bollywood actor Rajkummar Rao nicely nails Ashok’s weak charm, his unease at his family’s cruelty to their servants, and the spoilt self-interest that makes him burrow into his privilege. Gourav is even better, his Balram sliding effortlessly between clumsy flattery, raw cunning and sick fear at what his ambition requires. His final scenes with Rao pulse with queasy, twitchy tension, in high contrast to the calm-yet-angry home truths of his narration. Gourav inhabits Balram so completely, from despair to defiance, we can almost believe that in a rigged and immoral system his crimes are justified as an existential act.

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