Bristling, fast-paced, witty satire of contemporary India delivers the pleasures of cinema at its best
MA 15+, 131 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
It all began for Balram during an evening out with the boss and his wife, celebrating her birthday. The couple were intoxicated but birthday girl was nevertheless behind the wheel. The streets of Delhi were virtually empty, after all, so driver Balram was relegated to the back seat, a maharajah for the night.
A flash of consternation crosses his face as they fly past a bronze Gandhi and his followers, and then another as the 4WD swerves to miss a cow. Balram Halwai’s turban is slipping by now. Then a figure steps onto the road out of nowhere, with a sickening thump.
Balram, the eponymous ‘white tiger’, soon discovers that in modern India there are many ways to serve his masters, the unfortunate Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). By telling them what they want to hear, but also by taking the rap.
What, after all, is a servant without a master? For Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger, the novel that won the Booker Prize in 2008, and co-writer of this adaptation to screen, it is the servant-master relationship that still underpins Indian society, holding it back.
In Balram, a son of the rural poor, The White Tiger has a most unlikely protagonist. He is by turns sly and sincere, someone who plays it both ways to survive. In his skilful performance, Adarsh Gourav makes Balram an engaging screen presence and a significantly more empathetic character than the book ever quite manages.
A sweetmaker destined to stay in the family village, Balram realised one day that his prospects within the Indian system were no better than that of a rooster in the coop. Why wait placidly to have one’s head removed and one’s body cut up into useful culinary portions? That’s no way to live.
So, he inveigles his way into a job as driver for a rich family. It’s his first step en route to joining the burgeoning ranks of Indian entrepreneurs.
Balram asks that we do not prejudge him for his crime, the nature of which is not made entirely clear, until we have heard his ‘glorious’ tale in its entirety.
Adhering to the structure of the book, his story is presented as a letter to the Chinese Premier of the time. With an invitation to compare the outcomes of development in democratic India with those of its neighbour, communist China.
Now that America has become so ‘yesterday’, with the rest of the West in decline, the dawning 21st century would surely prove to be the time for China and India to come into their own.
But look at the infrastructure shambles and widespread poverty in India, compared to the relative elimination of these problems in its autocratic neighbour?
The White Tiger shows how the Indian system works, when it really shouldn’t. Who needs democracy when there is no transport system, no drinking water, no electricity, no sewerage system and ‘no manners’?
One of the film’s many enduring images captures Balram and another driver squatting opposite each other in broad daylight. The camera pulls back to reveal they are defecating behind tall grass in a vacant lot, barely hidden from their wealthy clients who enjoy the luxury of life in the gleaming tower blocks in the background.
Back in 2009, Adiga nominated Ramin Bahrani as his director of choice were his novel to be adapted for the screen. This has come to pass. The screenplay is a collaboration between Adiga and his Iranian-born friend. The writer-director has built a highly-regarded, socially and politically conscious filmography including features like 99 Homes and Fahrenheit 451.
Furthermore, in Bahrani’s hands the characters lose the cartoonish tendencies of the novel and acquire the heft and dimension they lacked on the page. The cinematography by Paolo Carnera and the editing by the director and Tim Streeto also greatly enhance the narrative.
Satire can be tricky, but The White Tiger maintains its wicked and darkly humourous tone throughout. From the brisk opening scenes, Bahrani has ensured that his film makes its political point while also delivering on the pleasures of cinema.
The White Tiger, a tough and savage tale about advancement by hook or by crook in modern India, has been turned into a terrific film. Angry, nuanced, entertaining.
First published in the Canberra Times on 16 January 2021