Dir: Ramin Bahrani. Featuring: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas. 15, 125 mins
“Rich men have the chance to be good,” says Balram (Adarsh Gourav), hero of The White Tiger. Just like last year’s Best Picture winner Parasite, Ramin Bahrani’s drama is certain of one thing: pleasantries are a small thing to ask from those who’ve never been robbed by the world. Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel, it is a blistering satire of global capitalism and India’s caste system.
That line is uttered by Balram somewhere within a frantic jumble of maxims and metaphors. He’s in the middle of writing an email to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India to view first hand the country’s entrepreneurial spirit. Balram thinks of himself as the ideal spokesman – though because he was not born a rich man, he can’t guarantee that his success story is filled only with goodwill and saintly acts. “Don’t believe for a second there's a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it,” he warns, in a direct rebuke of Danny Boyle’s feelgood, rags-to-riches tale Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Balram was born into immense poverty. But he was a bright student destined to become, as his elders called him, “a white tiger” – the rare, outstanding individual who gets to escape their circumstances. When the western-educated son of his family’s landlord, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), returns home, Balram spots an opportunity. He ingratiates himself with the family – first by taking out the competition, then by such a show of subservience and flattery that he’s upgraded from the role of second driver to something akin to an extra limb for Ashok and his Indian-American wife (Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s Pinky).
Roa and Chopra Jonas pull off a tricky piece of acting here – their characters are always trying to hide their privilege behind different masks. Sometimes it’s a grand gesture of sincerity. Other times it’s a warm smile and a laugh. They chastise their relatives for their old-fashioned, brutalising treatment of the household servants. Pinky, especially, seems set on the idea that her humble upbringing in Brooklyn makes her Balram’s social equal. But they’re not so different from Parasite’s Park family. As soon something goes wrong, that gentility cracks, and Balram discovers how truly dispensable he is. It’s here that The White Tiger takes a dark but exhilarating turn – one fuelled by bitterness, resentment, and righteous fury. “Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or love them behind a facade of loathing?” he asks himself. The answer soon becomes clear.
Bahrani, whose previous work includes Man Push Cart (2005) and 99 Homes (2014), has shown himself to be adept at demonstrating how outsiders are defined along economic and social lines. He’s fiercely loyal not only to the plot of Adiga’s book – the pair were classmates at Columbia University – but to the point of view of his protagonist.
Cinematographer Paolo Carnera gives the nighttime glow of street lights an intoxicating, alluring feel; Balram is often captured with a fisheye lens, so it looks as if the camera is trying to crawl into his brain. Gourav’s performance fills in the spaces between his words. There’s a malleability to his expressions, in how easily they can race between naivety and lordliness. A sheepish smile turns into a shark’s grin – and the transformation from prey to predator is complete.