The ambitious Balram (Adarsh Gourav) sees a local landlord’s family as his ticket out of poverty from his small village in rural India. But he will need to use his wit and cunning to avoid being trapped by a life of servitude and become a wealthy entrepreneur in charge of his own destiny.
There’s a compelling line in White Tiger that sums up its bristling anger at the class and capitalist frameworks that keep the poorest in society at the bottom of the pile. About halfway through, protagonist Balram becomes frustrated at his repeated failures to get ahead in life. He hits a bottle of whiskey, contemplating how hard life is, and says “I was trapped in the Rooster Coop. And don’t believe for a second that there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it.”
The ‘Rooster Coop’ is what he calls India’s institutionalised caste structure which categorises people regardless of their smarts or talent. In one line he rails against the unfairness of a country which would force him into servitude just to escape abject poverty, while also deconstructs the naïve idea that luck or destiny can change that. It’s a clever poke at one of the most iconic films about India of recent years, Slumdog Millionaire, and shows that White Tiger’s director, Ramin Bahrani, has a more serious agenda to share.
White Tiger does away with the vivid stop-overs of India’s raw beauty that came alongside the scenes of urban squalor in Slumdog Millionaire. Here, Bahrani shows us a nation firmly built on inequity, where peasants live in mud huts while landlords live in mansions, and drivers live in carparks with their employers’ cars. It’s a hard film, and Bahrani manages to shine a stylish and engaging light on the rough edges and seedy corners of what characters refer to as the “world’s largest democracy”.
The script, adapting a New York Time bestseller, is exciting even with a 120-minute-plus runtime. The script sweeps us from the backwater of life in rural India to the chaos of its modern cities with scintillating detail, showing the tapestry of people caught up in a system designed to empower the wealthy and keep the poor serving at their feet.
The only weakness in the film’s storytelling is its ending; Bahrani, who also wrote the script, didn’t seem to know where to end the film and muddies his epilogue with too much repetition of earlier points. Despite this, White Tiger could be India’s defining landscape on film for years to come, such is its power.
Adarsh Gourav is the undoubted star of White Tiger as the likeable Balram. Gourav perfects his transition from wide-eyed, ambitious youth to cynical entrepreneur by the film’s end without ever taking the arc into cliché territory. We’re never under any illusion that Balram wants to better the world; but by the time we get to the end of White Tiger we still feel aggrieved at Balram’s spiral.
Rajkummar Rao plays his role as good-master-turned-bad Ashok to a tee. The rest of the supporting cast of White Tiger is also good, especially Priyanka Chopra as Ashok’s progressive girlfriend, Pinky, who brings emotional depth to a world of male posturing.
Fast, fierce, and fun. White Tiger sweeps India’s caste system and capitalist landscape with engaging scenes of scathing anger and conditional betterment. The film shows us you can succeed in beating the odds – but the price is high.
White Tiger is well worth its Oscar nomination. Frothing with energy and anger, the film is well-written and paced, with immense starring performances. 8/10.