The cast of the White Tiger: Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Adarsh Gourav, Vijay Maurya and Mahesh Manjrekar
The White Tiger Director: Ramin Bahrani
The rating of the White Tiger: 3 stars
‘The days of the white man are over. It is now the time of brown and yellow. Ramin Bahrani’s wild, darkly comical adaptation of Arvind Adiga’s award-winning The White Tiger is full of those brushstrokes that are on the verge of being banal or profound, but can only come from a man who has fought his way into the caste. Class leader in India. A man who comes once in a generation, an impossibility, just like a white tiger.
And that man is Balram Halwai, a “servant” who believes that his future is to serve his “master” with all that he has. He knows that the only way to get into the good books of his wealthy landlord (Manjrekar) and his elder son (Maurya) is to dive at their feet and that bowing and scraping will be his lot until he does getting to his real goal is the younger US-returned son Ashok (Rao).
When Adiga’s 2008 novel came out, Bangalore (now Bengaluru) was the Mecca of those who wanted to do something. Watching Ashok’s eagerness to get there to launch his startup already feels out of date: the proliferation of information technology and its multi-million dollar spin-offs have created many similar hubs in India. But the key element that still has the same bite is the cavernous gap between “big-bellied men” and “small-bellied men”, between men like Ashok and Balram, and how difficult it is to bridge that gap.
Men like Ashok, who quickly acquired the outfit many “desis” have in the US: ambition that slips, a foreign woman, and an intimate dislike of the way things are done at home. The way he becomes the man who believes in the equality of all men when he is with Pinky (Chopra) and the way he goes back to his feudal roots in the company of his father and brother , is one of the hottest parts of the world Rao delivers on-time performance than the guy who is neither here nor there and viewed as a gentle touch by both his family and his “servant”. Both believe he isn’t human enough to keep Pinky under control and both have disdain for him. The family comes as a thinly veiled irritation. And Balrams stands in the way of a smile. Actually, it’s more of a rictus that comes out from behind its paan-stained teeth and never reaches the eye.
The constant voice-over gets annoying after a point. We don’t really need to know what’s going on in Balram’s head if we can see it playing out on screen. The more tell-tale show syndrome takes away from the experience, which is also somewhat marred by the village sequences which feel like sets. Balram and his family speak in Purabiya, but his ‘dadi’ sounds Punjabi. Huh? And that mixture of tongues travels from the village to the city as we see Balram, the newcomer, learn the ropes of the seasoned drivers who spend their time in dark, damp cellars, waiting for the sahibs and memsahibs to be summoned.
There is also the connection between politician and businessman and the pockets of cash that are exchanged for mutual benefit: many famous Sarkari buildings become places of bribery and corruption. Manjrekar and Maurya are appropriately die-hard, wicked, bigoted feudalists who know their place in the world and are uncomfortable with the “low caste” female Neta (great to see Sampat again, if only briefly) who has her short and curls is obvious. Your interactions didn’t have to be underlined, or was it for the international audience?
These are outstanding acts. Chopra does her part too, although her American-desi-rebellious “Bahu” is treated a little unclearly. But the film is owned by Gourav, who channels that very specific, razor-sharp mix of submissiveness and anger to create a stellar performance. Never mock and never turn your back on those who serve you or the brown-skinned white tiger will swallow you whole.