Is your status in society your own or is it based on years of psychological manipulation? This is the question Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger asks as great performances, ambitious ideas and a whip-smart script take you on a journey of one man’s determination to rise out of the depths he was born into.
Adarsh Gourav stars as Balram, a poor boy from a nothing village who is told he is the “White Tiger” – the once in a lifetime Indian lower-class citizen who’s advanced academics will rise him out of the slums. Life gets in the way as Balram is forced to work in a tea shop to support his family due to his father’s debts to the local landlord, The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar).
Concurrently, Balram is a successful businessman in Bangalore and writes an email to a visiting Chinese premier telling him his life story.
Balram isn’t content with living his life in his village and being married off, so he convinces his grandmother to let him take driving lessons and become a driver. He charms his way into the lives of The Stork and his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) to become Ashok’s driver.
From there, Balram attempts to advance himself, financially and psychologically, out of his lower-class self. Along the way, Balram must navigate the ins-and-outs of driving around Ashok and his American-raised wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra).
The film and Balram make constant references to roosters stuck in a coop. An early scene shows a rooster being pulled from a cage, killed and butchered while the other roosters look on and await their fate. Balram tells us that servants are the exact same way to masters. There is no natural impulse of a servant to rebel and deceive their masters because of centuries of manipulation in the Indian caste system.
Gourav commands the screen with equal parts enthusiasm and optimism. When he is smiling along driving his masters around, he has this contented, dopey look on his face. Balram’s entire job is an act and he will act how he is meant to if it means he gets one step closer to the ladder of success. Gourav navigates the character differences between his rise and eventual success as two different humans, but with gradual changes and not to suffer the character. It is a true star performance.
Rao has the more difficult role as Ashok. When we are introduced, Ashok is not like other masters and treats Balram with respect and dignity. His relationship with his wife propels his character in unseen directions and Rao is more than up to the challenge. Chopra appears to be eye candy, but evolves into something else entirely. As someone who was raised in America, Pinky expects American ideals to prevail while the class divides and inhumanity that rule India clash with her sensibilities. She shines when she appears and the film suffers from that spark of grace when she leaves.
For someone who is not Indian, Bahrani (who is Iranian-American) directs with utmost confidence on how the systems in India are stacked against the poor. Empty promises and government corruption rule the day and Bahrani lays it out clearly and concisely without bashing you over the head. His script propels forward with a true sense of purpose.
The White Tiger was a welcome surprise and continues Bahrani’s long tradition of quality filmmaking.