“Winning a million rupees in a game show isn’t going to solve it,” Balram (a compelling, multi-faceted Adarsh Gourav) says in one of his voiceovers as the protagonist of the latest Indian rags-to-riches drama, “The White Tiger.” That line signals that award-winning director Ramin Bahrani is turning a classic story line on its head. This is no “Slumdog Millionaire,” Danny Boyle’s 2009 Oscar-sweeping film, where the slum-born Jamal successfully competes on an Indian TV game show.
Instead, with a nod to film noir, “The White Tiger’s” initial scenes start with the end: Balram as a successful entrepreneur, holding a “Wanted for Murder” poster with his face on it, and an incident that appears to involve a fatal hit-and-run (recalling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 American classic, “The Great Gatsby”). The narrator is neither dead, as was William Holden in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950), nor in the process of dying, as was Edmund O’Brien in “D.O.A.” (1949), but, like those noir archetypes, he is telling a story from the beginning when we think we know the end.
When Balram takes us back to his schoolboy days (Harshit Mahawar is the young Balram), a local official visits the school and announces the precocious boy will receive a first-class education, including college, for his slavish reciting of the glories of “The Great Socialist,” an Indian politician (Swaroop Sampat). The local official calls Balram a white tiger, something that comes along only once in a generation. We seem to be on the Slumdog Millionaire track, but within minutes that hope is dashed as Balram’s voiceover intones, “that was the last time I saw the inside of a school.”
Instead of getting an education, Balram turns to the dogged pursuit of a job as servant-driver to a wealthy, corrupt Indian family.
Instead of getting an education, Balram turns to the dogged pursuit of a job as servant-driver to a wealthy, corrupt Indian family. Seldom has the mentality of the servant class been shown so viscerally or with such nuance. Although Balram wants the job because it will take him out of his poor and suffocating village (and away from his rapacious Granny [Kamlesh Gill] who rules and fleeces the family), he understands that the freedom the job offers is only partial, and that it entails profound obligations. Balram compares servants to roosters in a rooster coop: They never rebel; they go knowingly and willingly to their deaths in service to their masters.
The story of Balram and his “masters” is complex, fascinating, and chilling. It’s a populist tale of caste and class (not unlike “Parasite”  and “Shoplifters”  and even “12 Years a Slave” [2013’s Best Picture Oscar]), resonating today with systemic racism, as eloquently presented in Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book about the U.S., “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Balram, who is capable of subservience, rage, helpful concern, and cruel manipulation, is both deeply inside the system and tortuously conflicted by it. Does the servant, he asks himself, love the master with a façade of loathing or loathe the master with a façade of love?
The “masters” in the film are presented in a variety of types. They range from The Great Socialist, the totally corrupt politician collecting bags of money while she poses as a populist, to the patriarch of the family Balram serves, “The Stork” (Mahesh Manjrekar), and The Stork’s older son, “The Mongoose” (Vijay Maurya), who accept tithes from the poorest villagers while treating their servants, including Balram, as sub-humans.
Most receptive to Balram as a potential co-equal is the family’s younger brother, Ashok (Rajkumar Rao), who’s been educated in the U.S., and whom Balram mainly serves. Ashok is sympathetic in contrast to his malicious and immoral father and brother, but also unfocused and weak (he becomes literally the bag boy for the family, carrying bribe rupees in a red satchel). “The rich can afford to make mistakes,” Balram points out to us, and Ashok toys with grand ideas of making lower-class Indians internet-savvy. “They are the new India,” Ashok says while ruminating over this fantasy in the presence of Balram. When Balram responds with enthusiasm, “I am the new India,” the look on Ashok’s face is bafflement; he clearly wasn’t thinking of Balram as part of the new India—he’s a mere servant.
Ashok’s treatment of Balram is frustratingly inconsistent. He can think of him as incapable of advancing, as in the “new India” scene, and then at times admonish him, “Don’t call me ‘Sir,” seeming to want less deference. Ashok’s supposedly feminist U.S./Indian wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), appears to stand up for Balram and to be genuinely appalled at the place of servants in the Indian caste system. But when she wants to have sex in the back seat of the car while Balram is driving, she points out to Ashok they are alone: “it’s only Balram” up front, an invisible man.
There’s humor in the script that leavens the moral principles at play.
There’s humor in the script that leavens the moral principles at play. The head of the drivers (Nalneesh Neel), who rules a colony in the basement garage of a Delhi hotel, is comical and disturbing in his advice to “Country Mouse” Balram on how both to please and steal from the master. The zaniness of learning to drive in India, and Balram’s audacity in presenting himself as an expert in all things—driving, cooking, making sweets, the internet (about which he knows nothing)—keep the film from breaking under the weight of a heavy morality tale.
The cleverness of Bahrani’s script, based on the best-selling 2008 debut novel by Aravind Adiga, and the intensity of his directing (among his many films are “Fahrenheit 451,” 2018, and “Chop Shop,” 2007) maintain tension in the film throughout, producing a constant edginess that is lacking in most contemporary films. There’s no straightforward arc here, no obvious first-second-third acts. Instead, there’s the increasingly strong and uncomfortable awareness of the unfairness of life, the inhumanity of the wealthy and powerful, and the sense that most people—perhaps even the “white tiger”—simply have no options. A tale for our times, well told.
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkumar Rao, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vijay Maurya, Harshit Mahawar, Nalneesh Neel, Kamlesh Gill, Swaroop Sampat
The White Tiger ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Awards: To date, one nomination by the Independent Spirit Awards for Adarsh Gourav for Best Male Lead
Runtime: 125 Minutes
Availability: Streaming on Netflix only to date; see JustWatch here for future availability.