India holds the title of the world’s largest democracy. It is also, of course, the motherland of Mahatma Gandhi, a historical figure whose name has become more or less synonymous with peace and wisdom the world over.
Unfortunately, these lofty ideals belie other truths, and it’s these truths that “The White Tiger” dissects with a careful and incisive hand. A capitalist system with a history of social castes, populated by 1.4 billion people — what could go wrong?
“The White Tiger” is written and directed by lauded filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (“Fahrenheit 451”) and is adapted from the 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga of the same name. Adarsh Gourav (“Mom”), a relative up-and-comer to keep an eye on, stars as the ambitious and obsequious Balram Halwai. Balram is a village-dwelling member of a caste of candy makers. As a young boy, Balram had bright prospects — he possessed an intellectual curiosity and academic aptitude that garnered him a comparison to the titular white tiger, a “once-in-a-generation” specimen.
As a man, Balram is no tiger, white or otherwise. His father died an early death, his brother was locked down with kids through an arranged marriage and his cantankerous grandmother micromanages every aspect of his life. He still has dreams, but they’re a bit diluted — it’s Balram’s driving desire to be the best servant for the best master. When he catches wind that the village’s predacious and parasitic landlord (Mahesh Manjrekar, “Kesari”) is looking for a driver for his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao, “Chhalaang”) and daughter-in-law Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, “Isn’t It Romantic”), Balram seizes his opportunity.
The servant-master relationship is the fulcrum on which the film’s entire plot hinges. There are cruel masters, like Ashok’s father: a corrupt and withholding capitalist who regularly abuses Balram and employs him in conspicuously un-driver-like tasks, like oily foot rubs. There are “kind” masters, like Ashok and Pinky, who boohoo at the casual physical abuse Balram receives; “In America you could be sued for that,” Ashok warns his father. Their kindness isn’t sweet, however, it’s acrid.
They pay lip service to sympathy and advocacy, all the while being condescending about his “half-baked” nature and acquaintance with the “real India,” wistfully wishing they could trade places with him for his simple life before perfunctorily sending him back to the meager servants’ quarters as they retire to their lavish living space. Amid kind masters and cruel masters, drivers and foot-rubbers, Balram observes that there are really only two castes in India: people with large bellies and people with small ones.
This observation becomes the catalyst for a twin descent into crime and ascent into riches that keep the audience oscillating between earnest underdog-rooting and dismayed cringing at the moral misdeeds circumstances brought him into.
Much of the film is Balram retelling his own story, musing about the politics, social dynamics and economy of India. In the future, Balram is no longer a fawning servant but a slick and effective entrepreneur courting international contracts. This framing device is not entirely effective — the narration is sometimes blunt and other times distracting.
Still, it makes it clear that this isn’t the bleak world of “Parasite,” but a bona fide rags-to-riches story, even if those rags and riches are bloodied along the way. It’s a tiger-eat-tiger world after all.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.