Ramin Bahrani's The White Tiger, based on Aravind Adiga's 2008 novel of the same name, released on Netflix earlier this month. The narrative follows Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a Bihari driver who kills his employer Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and steals a bag full of cash; this is the starting point of his entrepreneurial journey, which he is recounting in an open letter to Wen Jiabao, the visiting Chinese premier.
To an extent, Bahrani's film has the same problems as Adiga's novel " the central character is too steeped in clichÃ©s to offer original insights, plus there is a fundamental dissonance between the 'realist' air it tries to conjure and the patently unrealistic speech patterns of just about every major character, starting with Balram.
And then there's the supremely annoying voice over. In the very first scene of the movie, we see Balram 'freezing' the action (his employer and his wife during a drunken midnight drive) and taking us through the motions of a flashback. "Pardon me. This is no way to start a story. I am Indian after all and it is an ancient and venerated custom of my people to start a story by praying to a higher power." The triteness of the line aside, the voice-over is also a bad move here because it renders the non-prologue opening moot. Throughout the course of the movie, Balram's voice-over becomes a proxy for the director's overly expository voice, much like Adiga's clearly Western-educated voice 'merges' with the 'authentic' Bihari voice he tries (and fails miserably) to create.
Let's not beat around the bush: Voice-over (VO) work is not among Bollywood's strong suites (although The White Tiger, is, of course, not-Bollywood).
They tend to be hammy, disruptive and more often than not, a hedging mechanism for inadequate screenplays. Did we really need Dil Dhadakne Do to tell us that Aamir Khan sounds like a smug little pug at times? No we did not; we already had Satyamev Jayate for that. Did we really need Anil Kapoor's voiceover to tell us bad puns about "Monsoon ki raat" (the young woman he is talking to is called Monsoon) in the movie Chocolate? (The correct answer is of course, we did not) Did Simmba really need a voice-over from Ajay Devgn's Singham? Actually, yes " how else are you supposed to transform a wholly different story into the hastily inducted latest member of the Rohit Shetty Cop Universe? The Simbba/Singham story is a great example of the way voice-overs are treated in Bollywood " like an afterthought, a short order solution to just about any problem, narrative or otherwise. Once Shetty decided that his rape-revenge story will be more saleable as a Singham spinoff, Devgn shot exactly one action sequence, and the rest of the Singham connection was spelt out for the audience through a quick, shockingly lazy voice-over by Devgn in the first ten minutes of the movie. Problem solved, presto chango! No wonder we are stuck with a deluge of mediocre, poorly-written voiceovers.
There are, of course, notable exceptions. It worked in Gangs of Wasseypur because of how closely Piyush Mishra's sardonic tones matched the tragicomic ethos of the movie (and of course, the little sociological asides that helped bridge the cognitive gap between Bombay audiences and the realities of Bihar). It worked in Dhobi Ghat but that movie was an exception in so many ways outside of this context, too. It worked in Shaandar because Naseeruddin Shah, over and above his other formidable skills, has plenty of experience narrating fairytales (which is what Shaandar was); remember his Karadi Tales audiobooks?
A young Amitabh Bachchan provided a memorable voice-over for Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khiladi (but again, Ray isn't Bollywood), including the delightful 'cherry-picking' animated sequence, where Bachchan's sense of whimsy and mischief really comes through. I've caught several Bollywood actors trying to mimic Bachchan's voiceover style down the years; everybody wants Lagaan-like gravitas, only on a budget.
In general, however, Bollywood voice overs veer between the merely bad to the so-bad-it's-hilarious. Which is a shame because, in skilled hands, voice-overs can not only be a more than a handy narrative tool, they can also help filmmakers break the fourth wall, reach out to the audience 'directly' without using the characters as conduits, a la The Office, which pioneered the 'irony tag team' effect (characters doing one thing while voice over finds a way to puncture that very thing or proposition). In Mean Girls, the voice over went even further " a combination of VO and imagery put audiences inside the head of the character in a way that felt immediate, urgent, irresistible.
Earlier this week, I wrote about how the TVF/SonyLiv series Gullak employs the titular gullak or piggybank as narrative voiceover; now there's an inspired choice that works at multiple levels.
Finally, I was disappointed by The White Tiger's subpar voice-over work because of director Ramin Bahrani's own track record. His 2009 short film Plastic Bag was a weird little masterpiece, a fusion of manic love story and environmental parable, narrated by the titular plastic bag who has fallen in love with its first-ever owner. The plastic bag, whose voice-over dialogues are the film's sole narration (the music is by Sigur Ros founding member Kjartan Sveinsson) is voiced by none other than Werner Herzog, one of the greatest filmmakers alive. Herzog's voice, with its endless subtleties and its poker-faced humour, adds so much to this film. Once you've heard him, it will be impossible to imagine the film with a different voice. And that is the hallmark of a truly great voice-over.