Review: Netflix drama ‘The White Tiger’ is a sharp-clawed satire of upward mobility
The fabled beast that gives “The White Tiger” its title makes a late but striking entrance: It’s majestic and beautiful but visibly perturbed, prowling restlessly around a tight enclosure that scarcely seems capable of containing it. It isn’t the only caged animal in Ramin Bahrani’s engrossing if metaphorically top-heavy new movie, which presents its wily antihero, Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), with a difficult question. Will this low-caste villager turn out to be the white tiger, that rarest and most remarkable of jungle dwellers, born only once in a generation? Or will he be just another of the cooped-up roosters who, the movie suggests, make up the vast majority of Indian society, never questioning the terms of their imprisonment and calmly awaiting their slaughter?
Balram, introducing himself as a successful business owner circa 2010, answers that question with witty self-assurance. There is slaughter to come, to be sure, but his personal story — sometimes grim, sometimes funny (and sometimes both) — is ultimately one of odds-defying personal triumph. Adapted by writer-director Ramin Bahrani from Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning debut novel, “The White Tiger” is a dark satire of upward mobility, a cross between a Dickensian bildungsroman and a Patricia Highsmith psychothriller. But Balram’s wall-to-wall narration gives it another dimension; he unveils his rags-to-riches story like a successful entrepreneur pitching an unusually high-risk business plan.
That plan is intended for the benefit of not only the audience but also for Wen Jiabao, then the Chinese premier, on the occasion of an official visit to learn the secrets of India’s thriving entrepreneur class. Opening with a few smarmy-funny asides about China and India’s joint economic superiority (“The future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man”), Balram soon gets down to business. Being intelligent and ambitious, he argues, isn’t enough for a poor man seeking to rise above his station. Deception, theft, bribery and worse all have their place in every true professional’s toolkit.
Adiga’s novel didn’t just push that idea to its grimmest possible conclusion; it revealed its dark denouement at the outset, letting the reader know what they were in for. Although the movie adopts the same wickedly conspiratorial tone, it avoids spoiling its own destination, so as to preserve the suspense and also save the worst for last. Balram wants a measure of our sympathy, at least initially, but he also wants to warn us, to remind us of the sinister potential beneath his eager-to-please facade. “In my country, it pays to play it both ways,” he tells us. “The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.”
Those dualities are charted with astounding dexterity in Gourav’s performance, which conveys both the ingrained sincerity and the sly calculation beneath Balram’s gregarious, obsequious manner. He wasn’t always this way, of course. We meet a younger version of Balram (played by Harshit Mahawar) in the small coal-mining village of Laxmangarh, where he shows promise as a student but is soon yanked out of school and forced to work at a tea shop by his calculating grandmother (Kamlesh Gill). Menial tasks and low wages, most of which will go straight into the family pot, seem to be his lot in life.
But the adult Balram envisions a grander destiny for himself when he catches sight of Laxmangarh’s obscenely wealthy landlord, known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). With an obsequious manner, an unyielding smile and a steady stream of lies, Balram lands a job as a driver in the Stork’s estate, where he tries to avoid running afoul of the man’s thuggish older son, the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), and eventually sweet-talks his way into the good graces of his handsome younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao).
Ashok was educated in America, which is where he met his Brooklyn-born wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). They make an attractive couple, more Westernized and forward-thinking than the others: They encourage the Stork to shift his investments away from coal and toward the internet. They’re superficially nicer, too, which is to say they’re more condescending than cruel; they dutifully blanch whenever the Stork smacks around the help. Rao and Chopra Jonas are both very good at eliciting — and then weaponizing — your sympathy for Ashok and Pinky, who are kinder but ultimately no more redeemable than the rest of their loathsome family.
The bifurcation of upstairs and downstairs becomes all too literal in the difference between the lavishly appointed hotel suites Ashok and Pinky occupy during an extended trip to Delhi, while Balram and other servants and drivers sleep in a dank underground parking garage. (The contrasts are made strikingly apparent in Paolo Carnera’s vibrant cinematography and Chad Keith’s elaborate production design.) But the gulf between haves and have-nots is never illustrated more starkly than when tragedy unexpectedly strikes and the family’s security is threatened. With terrifying swiftness, Balram becomes a convenient scapegoat, destroying whatever illusions he may have harbored about his privileged place in this household and awakening his rebellious spirit.
The simmering class tensions may remind you of last year’s spate of eat-the-rich thrillers like “Knives Out,” “Joker” and especially “Parasite,” which, like this movie, features the memorable image of a chauffeur quietly seething at his cluelessly entitled employers in the backseat. But the picture to which “The White Tiger” will inevitably draw the most comparisons — and which even gets a snarky shout-out in the trailer — is “Slumdog Millionaire,” which coincidentally emerged the same year as Adiga’s novel. That Oscar-winning popular hit spun a much more upbeat story about a young man escaping poverty and realizing his destiny against the backdrop of a rapidly globalizing India.
Upbeat doesn’t come naturally to Adiga or to Bahrani, a filmmaker with a career-long interest in dramas of poverty and economic injustice, starting with “Man Push Cart,” his 2005 debut feature about a Pakistani immigrant selling coffee and doughnuts on the streets of New York. More recently, in dramas like “At Any Price” and “99 Homes,” he has cast his net wider to examine a broad array of socio-economic complexities in rural and suburban America. Over the years his budgets have risen and his pictures have gotten starrier and more melodramatic, but Bahrani has never entirely abandoned the socially conscious spirit of the cinematic neorealists who inspired him, Vittorio De Sica and Satyajit Ray among them.
Even on the bigger, splashier international canvas of “The White Tiger,” there’s a becoming modesty to Bahrani’s filmmaking and a palpable reluctance to sensationalize or aestheticize his protagonist’s poverty. The movie naturally pulses with life and energy, invigorated by its narrative sweep, its nimble camerawork and propulsive musical score composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. But Bahrani scrupulously resists the temptation to turn India into a flashy, exoticizing spectacle, as more than a few critics accused “Slumdog Millionaire” of doing. The filmmaker may be as much of a cultural outsider as the Chinese premier, but every decision he makes feels born of a desire to see the country and these characters as honestly and matter-of-factly as possible.
It’s the clarity of complexity of his moral vision that accounts for why “The White Tiger,” engrossing and entertaining as much of it is, ultimately can’t sustain its gleefully amoral ride from start to finish. Bahrani’s shrewd instincts as a storyteller, including his instinctive pessimism and refusal of sentimentality, serve him well here, but there is something about the dark cynicism-verging-on-glibness at the heart of Adiga’s story that ultimately eludes him. The climax of “The White Tiger” is unsparingly dark and violent, but the closing passages nonetheless feel truncated and unsatisfying, as if the film were not entirely at ease with its conclusions. Balram has become a hell of an entrepreneur, but the movie itself can’t quite close the deal.
‘The White Tiger’
Rating: R, for nonstop violence and language, and for sexuality and drug content
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: Available Jan. 22 on Netflix
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