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The White Tiger

In 2009, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Slumdog Millionaire. It was a modern fairy tale romance in which a young man from the slums goes on a game show to try and reach out to a lost childhood love, but he ends up winning the game show and becoming wealthy because by some strange twist of fate, his entire life story taught him everything he needed to win.

In 2020, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Parasite. It was a pitch black satire about a family in the gutters who lie their way into jobs as servants for oblivious rich people, until things finally boil over with tragic and bloody results.

Put the two together and you’ve got The White Tiger, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, adapted from the novel by Aravind Adiga.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a reference that overtly calls out Slumdog Millionaire, throwing explicit and withering shade on the Danny Boyle film.)

This is the story of Balram Halwai, played by Adarsh Gourav. He’s immediately identified as one of the smartest kids in his class, but he’s pulled from a first-class education because his family is too poor and they need all hands on deck to support their struggling tea store. And by the end of the film, Balram’s wearing expensive suits and running his own massively successful company.

How did Balram get from one to the other? Well, he’s perfectly happy to tell us himself. Or rather, he’s narrating his life story via e-mail to a visiting Chinese dignitary, coming down to India to learn more about the nation’s outsourcing boom. Thus a self-made millionaire — the product of India’s corrupt capitalist democracy — talks in a one-sided conversation with a government representative from an oppressive Communist state. It makes for a fascinating compare/contrast between the two systems, especially from such a jaded and snarky point of view.

Anyway, Balram spent his early years living in a slum owned by a wealthy, crooked, politically well-connected landlord known only as “The Stork” (played by Mahesh Manjrekar). The turning point comes with the arrival of The Stork’s youngest son and American-raised daughter-in-law (Ashok and Pinky, respectively played by Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra), who’ve come back to India for a brief time.

Long story short, Balram begs, borrows, lies, steals, and cheats his way into working for Ashok as his personal driver. Balram then proceeds to wheedle his way into Ashok’s good graces, sucking up as a family servant until he can finally earn his financial independence.

The cast is solid from top to bottom (in particular, Adarsh Gourav proves himself to be a supremely versatile leading man) and the presentation is stylish, but this one is all about the social commentary. From start to finish, this movie is loaded with dark and dry observations about living in toxic capitalism, and the statements are unerringly direct by way of the framing device.

According to Balram, this nation of a billion people and a thousand castes is really only a nation of two classes: Those at the top, and those at the bottom. And those at the bottom are so broken, so brainwashed, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they’ll fight to defend the system even as it kills them. It’s desperation and poverty that keep the lower class in line, with the dishonest promise that they can work their way out if they try hard enough. When in truth, the only two ways from the bottom to the top are through crime and/or politics. And of course the criminals are bribing the politicians to keep their status safe.

At one point, Balram observes that India may have a democracy, but they’ve also got a nation overrun with disease, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and so on. Whereas China may have an oppressive dictatorship in which nobody has any kind of voice, but at least everyone has potable water and functional indoor plumbing. Is it too much to ask that we get the best of both worlds?

Then there’s the matter of family. In this, Ashok and Balram are two sides of the same coin. Both of them are visibly straining against the expectations and legacies of overbearing elders, both of them trapped by the norms and protocols of their social class. I might add that this is even more true of Ashok’s wife — Pinky was neither born into Ashok’s family, nor was she raised in India, so she has only the most thinly-veiled contempt for the Indian family structure. Most especially the quasi-legal structure and business of the family she married into.

The difference is that due to the framing device, we know that Balram eventually found the means and the courage to break free of his family and social class. It’s an open question as to whether Ashok and/or Pinky will ever manage so much.

As two people of wealth and opportunity who were educated in America, both Ashok and Pinky openly abhor the master/servant relationship that Balram was born into, and that India seems to run on. Ashok and Pinky want to be better than that, treating Balram as an employee, or at least as a trusted friend. Yet this causes some friction with Balram, because his masters are trying to coax him into a working relationship he has no frame of reference for. What’s worse, because Pinky was brought up with a more distinctly American attitude and her husband is a dyed-in-the-wool Indian, Ashok isn’t willing to go quite as far as she is toward advocating for workers’ rights, and this causes some division between them.

Perhaps most importantly, as much as Ashok and Pinky want to carry themselves as ethical employers who treat their hired help with dignity, they still belong to a class of people who are severely allergic to consequences. And their family is heavily involved in shady politics and borderline crime. When the chips are down and they need a fall guy, there’s very little doubt they’d throw Balram under the bus to save their own skins. And it’s an open question as to how Balram himself — ever the loyal and eager servant — might react to such repayment for his obedient and unquestioning service.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, there’s a rather big problem in the nature of the premise and the plot. The movie has been heavily marketed as the story of a young man who backstabs his way to the top through ambition and cunning. From this, you might expect a “Filthy Stinking Rich” story, or perhaps a plot in the “All About Eve” tradition. But we don’t really get either one.

Yes, this is more or less a story about a poor young man who maneuvers his way to into wealth, and it is genuinely compelling to watch how he does it. The problem is that Balram’s concrete actions toward that end are few and far between. Through the vast majority of the film’s runtime, Balram is either biding his time in wait for the opportune moment, or he’s learning another hard lesson about how he’s a disposable sucker getting chewed up and spit out by the system and the family that he serves.

  1. Past Balram gets screwed over.
  2. Present Balram waxes philosophical, talks about lessons and truths he learned the hard way, and foreshadows dark twists further down the line.
  3. Repeat for two hours.

For every ten minutes our protagonist runs his mouth in voiceover, we get maybe one minute of the character actively working to advance the plot of his own volition. Yes, the voiceover is compelling and elegant, and it is genuinely satisfying (albeit morally conflicting) to see Balram take the next step in his development. But it’s not good pacing when the entire movie is built around Balram’s growth from gutter trash to successful entrepreneur, and the lion’s share of that growth is compressed into the last fifteen minutes! And really, the climax of that film — by which I mean the catalyst of that massive growth spurt — wasn’t big enough or staged well enough to make the drawn-out setup quite worth it.

This one isn’t as aggressive or angry as Parasite, and it sure as hell isn’t as endearing or uplifting as Slumdog Millionaire. Yet there is a perfectly valid middle lane in between the two, and The White Tiger fits in there quite nicely. It’s a well-acted movie with deeply incisive statements about toxic capitalism all over the world. This is a movie that deals primarily in mental and emotional torture, with only a bare handful of deaths that (for better or worse) are nowhere near as bloody or graphic as they probably should’ve been.

I have a few gripes about the plot and pacing, but even those aren’t necessarily deal-breakers if you know what you’re in for ahead of time. Definitely give it a look.

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