In 'White Tiger,' Lessons Are Learned (and Relearned) About India's Class System

Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, newly streaming on Netflix, has two openings, both of them startling. In Delhi, in 2007, a truck whose driver, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), is drunk, speeds down a dangerously foggy road, swinging and swerving its way amid the night’s hidden dangers — a vehicle here, a cow there. Then the truck hits a child. 

And we get thrown into opening number two, in Bangalore, circa 2010, and into the world of he man who should have been driving that truck: Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), who in 2007 was the servant and chauffeur of the young, rich professional Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), but who is now no one’s servant. He’s large and in charge, by all appearances, or at the very least eager to appear so. And he’s got a lot on his mind: the modern ascendance of India, among other things, and what the noticeable shift in world powers — away from the U.S., toward China — might mean for the fate of his own country. The kind of things a man of Balam’s new status is now inclined to care about, where before the only thing on his mind was becoming that man. 

Now he’s here. And Balram — sharply dressed, clearly well-off, chest puffed up with the conspicuously slick confidence — understands the fate of his country. He understands it because, as he sees it, it mirrors his own fate — out of the darkness of poverty, into the light of opportunity. So begins the yarn that comprises this movie: The story of how Balram got here, which is also the story of how his face landed atop Wanted posters throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, it’s a complicated story. 

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The White Tiger is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker prize-winning picaresque of the same name, from 2008. Bahrani, who wrote the script, borrows freely and thoroughly from his source material, which means that Adiga’s broad social vision, his reliance on totalizing, evocative metaphors for summing up and making sense of India’s class conditions, reappear here, often to strong effect. There is the titular white tiger, a symbol of not only power, but rarity: a symbol of the individual, the exception. The kind of symbol, in other words, that a man born into Balram’s circumstances — impoverished, fatherless after the man dies of tuberculosis, school-less after his tuition is reallocated to relative’s dowry, for marriage — needs to believe in if he is to believe in himself. The India of Balram’s upbringing, as depicted in The White Tiger, is one in which the castes are so rigidly defined, their boundaries so inviolable, that it would take a white tiger to defy them. 

If that happens rarely, it’s in part, Balram tells us, because of the other dominant image in this movie: that of roosters in a coop, queued up for slaughter, completely aware of and witness to the slaughter of every rooster whose number is called before theirs, yet also lacking the wherewithal to make a run for it. It’s an image in which India’s poor are, as a result of the debilitating psychological effect of poverty, more apt to get in line than they are to try to flee. Balram’s sense of himself, a self-serving one to be sure, is as a white tiger. The story that Bahrani’s film tracks is that of Balram’s own will and cunning — as told by Balram. This being, in large part, a depiction of India at the specific crossroads of globalization and potential prosperity, the narration we hear throughout is actually a letter being written by Balram to China’s then-premier Wen Jiabao. His thesis: Who needs the West? It is not long before we better understand the irony underpinning this question. 

As a story about class above most else, The White Tiger is hardly a departure for its director, whose early features Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007) are considered classics of the microbudget indie tradition, films about poverty that resist neatly equating it with powerlessness, and which, wearing their own skimpy resources on their sleeves, seem of a piece with the lives and conditions they depict. Bahrani’s newest film immediately announces itself as a leap forward in resources for the filmmaker; those fast, gliding shots of the aforementioned truck are a pleasant surprise. The subject of the film, with its picaresque tale of class striving and survival by a figure at the margins of society, is nevertheless consistent with Bahrani’s interests, and often at its most nimble the closer it veers to the director’s familiar territory.

But it’s got a wide, populated canvas of people and ideas to wade through aside from that — starting with Balram, whose story begins in a rural village in India’s Gaya district, then shifts to Delhi, where he gets that job as the U.S.-educated Ashok’s driver, and is then, eventually, betrayed. The betrayal sets off other conflicts — and leads, windingly but not surprisingly, to a grim fate. All of this adds up to a coming-to-consciousness on Balram’s part, which itself starts to drift into Crime and Punishment territory, an antihero’s confused and feverish justification for a murder involving money, with all the psychological bells and whistles and internal back-and-forths this implies. This last pivot is a signpost for the movie’s decline, not because it makes for a bad watch, but because it stops being up to the task of its most interesting ideas. 

Balram’s class education, his long road to becoming streetwise and savvy, is a handy and necessary vehicle for exploring the social and political questions that Bahrani, like Adiga before him, has in mind. But what of the slick, ironic, ponytailed and smartly mustached Balram of the present? Clearly a transformation happened — not just in terms of the man’s politics, but also his style, his cunning, his fatalistic wit. This guy? This guy is interesting. This guy, placed right up front and heard, via voiceover, from end to end, allows for a movie that could spin in a number of directions. The White Tiger’s opening moments could give way to anything from satire to polemic to some stunning combination of both. 

Bahrani instead opts for something that, for all his film’s initial energy and intrigue, plays things comparatively straight. The White Tiger is a capable, compelling, topical drama, the story of an ascendant India — an India whose Bangalore has fashioned itself into a Silicon Valley of sorts, as Balram describes it — as narrated by a man whose own rise mirrors that of his country. It’s a good set-up: a picaresque whose specific cultural dimensions, whose dealings with India’s caste system and (as this movie sees it) rigid social determinism, give it extra fat to chew on. 

But The White Tiger, which has many merits, suffers for giving us a set-up that’s richer than the follow-through. It errs in whittling everything down to the basics, to a repeated array of symbols and tag lines and betrayals, lessons learned and relearned, that fail to grow more complex as the film wears on — even as the opportunities for that complexity keep announcing themselves. Bahrani’s take on Balram’s present-day circumstances is eventually so restricted to the beginning and end of the film that it begins to feel like a foregone conclusion, rather than like the curiosity that it is. It’s easy enough to see why: This is a classic narrative circle, a record-scratched, rewound, how-we-got-here kind of story. So it is in a way, foregone.

But it’s also more tantalizing, more suggestive, than what the film ultimately makes of the backstory. The ideas about India’s caste system, its national ascendance, its limited opportunity for class mobility, that Bahrani begin to feel overly simple. The film’s system of symbols and metaphors, borrowed from the novel, begin to feel too easy — not because they are, but because of what the film ultimately does with them. The movie gradually bears the sting of missed opportunity, one that pierces us most in the film’s final 15 minutes, when it’s clear how little time we’ll spend with the Balram of 2010. Back in Delhi, a bad thing happens — an enabling act of violence that catapults Balram out of one class and into another — and with suggestive swiftness, Balram does what it takes to make good on the rope he’s been thrown by fate. This ascendant rush, all of it climactic, feels more than a little intentional: You feel the film straining for a knowing, even damning, sense of comeuppance that in the same moment illuminates the double bind of what Balram has become. He has transformed into damning amalgam of both the man he directly set out to be and, after his experiences with the rich, the man has grown to hate. 

There’s a version of this arc that undoubtedly works, that smacks the audience sideways with the force of a perfectly grim, ironic punchline. Or any number of other attitudes. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2019), another tale of a fatal class encounter, ends on an unforgettable, overwhelming note — a tragedy that shocks us, in part, because it opts to beguile and stun where another film, a film such as The White Tiger, leans heavily on explanation and exposition, satisfying a need to neaten and explain a form of class rage that needn’t be so neat or explicable to compel or even convince us. The film’s undertone of parable, its reliance on an exceptional individual — a white tiger — nevertheless deployed to explain a vast social world, does the movie in. 

Bahrani’s film ultimately makes the points that it sets out to make with drama that proves, for the most part, to be entertaining. But the force of what’s there, the tangled-up, raging engine that initially catapults the story through its early ideas, wanes to a near-whimper. There needn’t be a strict formula for a story such as this, even if it is, at base, classically picaresque. But The White Tiger eventually falls prey to such formula, and further prey to a redundancy that doubles down on its ideas to the point of squishing them flat, leaving little room to explore the real curiosities of the Balram we meet up top. It’s a compliment to Gourav’s unassuming but pitch-perfect performance that I want to know more about this guy the second I meet him and only grow more interested as his story hums along — until the movie begins to settle into what are, ultimately, its least original ideas.

The other actors are equally worthy. Rao’s Ashok, for example, hopscotches from kind to cruel, friend to “master,” with an ease that proves not only dramatically consistent, but unnervingly so. Here is a man who seems fair, despite his associations, and whose fairness feels rooted in his cosmopolitanism. He’s nice to Balram because, having been abroad, he’s seen the way of things. It’s not enough to get him to renege on his privileges, but it’s enough to make him seem like he wants to. That’s the perilous trap of the niceness of the comfortably rich — and Rao gets it right. Meanwhile,  there’s a noticeable temperature shift when Chopra’s character leaves the story; things grow noticeably less intriguing once Pinky Madam and the tensions she inspires, the codes she throws into question, are suddenly absent. What deflates the movie isn’t the shift itself, but in the sense that Bahrani, having lost the crucial and curiously out-of-place texture and attitude Pinky’s character provides, has nothing of similar interest to replace it with. It’s notable that when she leaves, the movie’s conflicts begin to move sideways rather than forward, growing repetitious rather than vicious, even as the movie is ostensibly building toward its climax.

Bahrani is a good director. He can tell a good, invigorating, thoughtful story. Followers of his work already knew as much, and the novel’s source material provides him a pretty good, if not invigoratingly original, outline of such a story. For its letdowns, The White Tiger offers its writer-director an encouragingly big canvas, which is heartening for an artist whose early work managed to take an inch and run a mile, proving all the more evocative for being so streetwise and constrained. Bahrani’s new film is a sign that he has clearly not lost his ambition, even as the resulting effort falls a little short of that ambition. That, however, is the pleasure of getting to see a director of merit grow, change, across the scope of a long career — which Bahrani deserves. What The White Tiger signals isn’t a bad return on his early promise. It accomplishes the opposite: It makes me eager for what will come next.

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