“The White Tiger” is a soap operatic saga about one young man’s rise to the “light” — the wealthy caste — of India. It’s a “What Makes Sammy Run?” for the subcontinent, a self-narrated tale of a hustler and how he hustled — “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” without the music, and with the “trying.”
North Carolina filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has made a bluntly insightful melodrama about India beyond Bollywood, a country with grinding poverty that entraps most, the entrenched, corrupt rich and “the entrepreneur class” arising out of the “miracle” of the “outsourcing economy.”
It’s not as good as Bahrani’s more intimate indie films (“Chop Shop” and “99 Homes”). But he’s made a summer read of movie — a real page-turner (based on a novel by Aravind Adiga) — and a film that holds your interest straight through its seriously perfunctory finale.
A clumsy structure frames it. A Bangalore entrepreneur (Adarsh Gourav of “Mom” and “My Name is Khan”) writes a longflattering fan letter to a visiting Chinese premiere on the hopes that he’ll get to meet the great man on his tour of India.
“The future belongs to yellow and brown people,” our narrator crows. And in his story, he lays out how he knows this prophecy to be true.
But there’s a less clumsy second frame, an opening car accident that changes the fate of our anti-hero much later on.
Balram was a smart but poor village kid, bound for a scholarship that politics and the generational tyranny of his family kept him from accepting. All but enslaved to a tea shop because of his father’s debts, bullied and shamed into submission by a grandmother controlling her not-quite-starving extended family’s fate, Balram grows up to recognize the many things holding him back and sentencing his father and him to a lifetime in the servant class.
Peer pressure and schadenfreude ensures that the poor hold each other back, and Balram decides he will do whatever it takes “not to be a poor man in a free democracy.”
Sly asides in this narration poke fun at China’s idea of “freedom,” and India’s laughable embrace of the title “world’s largest democracy.” Balram sees the two Indias — the “light” for the rich, connected and corrupt, and the dark for those consigned to the lower castes.
He schemes to get a job with the rich family of shakedown artists led by The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), cruel opportunists who started in the village and finagled their way into a virtual protection racket, taxing the poor to prop up their city lifestyle.
Borrowing from Granny to get driving lessons (she extorts his promise to pay her almost everything he earns), our hero wrangles the “second driver” job with the family, handling the Mitsubishi SUV that hauls around American-educated son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-born wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra).
They don’t like the words “master” or “servant,” don’t beat the hired help like the older generation of the family does. Balram does his job in the most servile way he can manage, listens and learns. Someday, he will get the cash and the connections together to escape this trap, where even a well-paid servant is put out to pasture in poverty once the rich are done with them.
“White Tiger” feels like a more universal “movie of its moment” in its messaging. We see the beloved politician (a composite) nicknamed “The Great Socialist,” a “champion of the poor” who takes bribes to keep taxes low for the rich. This film is all about a class war that may sound like a race war, in Balram’s hamfisted “brown and yellow future” declarations. But he sees the real enemy.
“Do we loathe masters behind a facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?”
The script narrates its way through the many plagues of life in India — literal (tuberculosis) and figurative (lack of education, classism, the poor embracing their fate via religion and tradition).
There’s a lot to chew on and a lot to see hanging off a rise-to-riches story built on a classic model.
It’s not the most surprising story of its type, and it’s far from Bahrani’s most graceful film. His more intimate, less sprawling tales never felt this clunky, with all the seams showing.
But Gourav makes a barely-likable and yet entertaining tour guide. And the story, from its lighter delights to its grim underpinnings, holds the viewer through 125 minutes of “India in a way India Rarely Portrays Itself,” a country that owns the future by painting over the serious problems of the tens of millions destined to be left behind.
MPA Rating:R for language, violence and sexual material
Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Mahesh Manjrekar and Vijay Maurya
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:07