I’ll be the first to admit my ignorance to the culture of India and how it’s economic and social structures work, but apparently poverty and poor growth are big issues there. It’s interesting to see a film delve into this country and the struggles that cause suppression and marginalization in what some have deemed one of the “greatest democracies” in the world or at least one of the largest. Netflix’s latest drama “The White Tiger”, based on the book of the same name by Arvind Adiga and written and directed for the screen by Ramin Bahrani, explores one man’s journey to escape the “slavery” of his culture and its economy to become a successful entrepreneur bent on redefining a broken system. The film stars Adarsh Gourav in his first leading role as the main character Balram who recalls the story of his rise from peasant “slave” to a master of his own life and a successful self-made businessman. The result is a finely crafted drama that delves into the dark realities of escaping a system that holds down the lower class, one far too many countries have adopted over the decades in one form or another.
“The White Tiger” is told as a recollection by Balram who is attempting to earn respect from a Chinese Premier visiting India in 2010. The bulk of the film is told in flashback format as we see Balram’s story. His rise as a businessman is only in the last fifteen minutes. Most of the story revolves around his transformation from willing “slave” to a master to self-aware entrepreneur who delves into some pretty dark places to escape his symbolic cage. With that in mind, “The White Tiger” easily could have devolved into a generic anti-capitalist film. While it does have shades of that theming, it’s more about one man’s longing to escape the chains of servitude and take control of his own destiny in a culture and country that seems bent on preventing him from doing so. This is shown not just in his employment, but also with his family. On one hand his ambition leads him to become a driver for a powerful landlord (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-born wife (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), which actually is played off sort of like a romantic relationship in an interesting symbolic representation of how Balram initially sees servitude as somethign to strive for an enjoy. He eventually realizes he has become to comfortable serving others at the expense of his own dignity and values. But on the other hand he also suffers from control by his family with his grandmother seeking to marry him out and continuously asking for his profits. While he did promise he’d support them economically he quickly realizes he is being taken advantage of and that no one else is willing to chase higher paying jobs while guilt tripping him into sharing his income. He is both accepting servitude from a master and accepting slavery from his family who are unwilling to better themselves making him one of the many members of the middle class stuck in between the struggle for power between the classes and thus unable to chase his own personal desire for freedom, success and a life all his own.
This provides an interesting predicament for Balram throughout the film and helps keep the story from focusing too heavily on one idea of servitude and slavery, rather expanding it and showing how one man tries to take control of several aspects of his life with the hope of assisting others to escape their own “cages”, which is a heavily symbolic theme utilized in much of Balram’s narration. Adarsh Gourav, who plays Balram, is captivating in his first starring role bringing to life his character’s revelations, frustrations and even his peaceful willingness to accept his servitude with sincerity and believability. Even when Balram begins to take chances and go off the deep end to better his life at the cost of others we can’t help but root for him while simultaneously pondering whether or not his willingness to challenge his own ethics is truly making him a better person. What we end up with is a main character, and a surprisingly honest narrator, that knows he’s imperfect and flawed but also challenges the viewer by asking “would you have done anything different and if so, could you have lived with the life you decided to accept?”. It’s a genuinely complex, character driven story that doesn’t really have a villain or a hero, but rather showcases how the middle class is often taken advantage of by both those above and below them, thus exposing an imbalance in the world that feels relevant beyond the borders of India but is especially relevant in that country especially with the continued existence of the caste system that still exists in one form or another.
What I also loved about this film is that it really feels like a book brought to life. I never read Arvind Adiga’s book, but I’m intrigued and willing to check it out just based on the condensed version we see in this movie. The narration isn’t distracting and rather helps compliment Balram’s revelation by making it feel like WE are being told a cautionary story of the harsh realities of the world and by adding a sense of honesty to the events we see as Balram holds nothing back in admitting the dark places he goes to in order to escape his symbolic cages. The visual elements are well shot and well-paced making it feel like something someone really imagined while reading the words on a page. That’s a pretty rare thing to accomplish for a movie where it can feel like an engaging book without the viewer ever actually having to read the source material to feel that sensation. To me, that says this is a very well created and lovingly made tribute and adaptation of the book and even beyond that “The White Tiger” feels very well done and sincere as simply just a good movie. There’s not a lot of sugarcoating, but it’s also not unbearably depressing or preachy either. There are some intriguing larger ideas present throughout the movie especially concerning the rise of India and China on the economic stage and, as previously stated, the cultural divide resulting from economic and other factors, yet nothing ever feels too overbearing. It’s simply presenting some honest realities and a darkly relatable story of one man’s struggle to fight several systems that still to this day marginalize and take advantage of the middle class.
“The White Tiger” is an excellent adaptation that does what most book-to-screen movies really should do. It presents its story in such a way that it actually makes you want to read the book that inspired it to see if it’s just as good. That’s a hard thing to do especially for someone like me who doesn’t often read books before he sees the movie. Take away the book adaptation element though and “The White Tiger” is still exceptional, offering some great commentary on the separation of classes both socially and economically as it explores one man’s dark path to try and escape the limitations and status quo that he has accepted for far too long. It’s interesting to think of where Balram’s life would go after the events of the film seeing how far he was willing to go to get to his success, but what we are given, this journey from peasant to master of his own destiny, is just as engrossing. It also sheds some much-needed light on India as a nation and the poverty and underdevelopment that litters the region even today. “The White Tiger” is an awesome piece of cinematic art that shows great promise from its young star, often overlooked director and the author that made the story possible in the first place.