Film Reviews

Tackling India’s repressive, inflexible caste system, “The White Tiger” chronicles Balram Halwai’s fawning deference, growing resentment, and eventual violent rejection of his submissive station. Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize winning novel, director Ramin Bahrani manages to create a quirky, even occasionally and unexpectedly amusing presentation of Balram’s abject subservience evolving into self-assured entitlement.

Told in flashbacks, Balram writes a long letter to China’s Premier, His Excellency Wen Jiabao, on the eve of his 2010 visit to India to investigate entrepreneurship. Segueing from indigent rural village life in Laxmangarh to chauffeur for the wealthy Ashok in Delhi, Balram initially is the model of deferential, docile behavior. However, intelligent and observant, experiences will lead him to embrace corruption, violence, and ruthlessness in order to succeed, though he remains astutely aware of his moral compromises, vowing to treat his employees different from the ways the ultra-wealthy Stork family demeaned and insulted him.

Through myriad details, Balram’s story reveals the inequity that destroys ambition and limits social progress; for example, though singled out as a particularly intelligent boy, Balram’s grandmother makes him abandon studies to break pieces of coal for the family tea shop. Numerous incidents add specificity to the systemic social critique, including the predominance of English, assigned criminal responsibility, prejudice regarding religion, and living conditions.

Balram’s explanation of a rooster coop is as striking as the metaphor of the white tiger, its “once in a lifetime” rarity briefly explained as a tiger is watched neurotically pacing its cage. Balram draws an explicit comparison between India’s subjugated, desperately poor citizens and roosters watching one after another taken from their coop and slaughtered, the remaining targets never even attempting to escape, resigned to their fate. He dubs this “guarded from the inside,” and a fair sampling of this is on display as his rural family and community turn on each other rather than their oppressors.

Superb art direction uses reflections and mirrors to depict Balram, expertly played by the superb Adarsh Gourav with solid supporting performances. As talented director Bahrani demonstrates in his earlier films set in America (“99 Homes,” “Man Push Cart,” and “Goodbye Solo”) this contrast of privilege and struggle is not just an Indian story. In English and Hindi with English subtitles, “The White Tiger” is at select cinemas and streaming beginning January 22 on Netflix.

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