'The White Tiger': Film Review

A still of the Netflix film 'The White Tiger'
Courtesy of Netflix

Adarsh Gourav and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in 'The White Tiger'

Shows its fangs with a crooked smile.

Writer-director Ramin Bahrani adapts Aravind Adiga's best-selling novel about a poor villager in modern India, caught between his humble roots and his employer's blinding wealth and power.

The affinity for urban street culture that informed Ramin Bahrani's early New York indies, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, is all over the writer-director's mordant adaptation for Netflix of Aravind Adiga's 2008 Booker Prize winner, The White Tiger. An immersive plunge into the chasm separating the servant class from the rich in contemporary India, the drama observes corruption at the highest and lowest levels with its tale of innocence lost and tables turned. If there's simply too much novelistic incident stuffed into the overlong film's Dickensian sprawl, the three leads' magnetic performances and the surprising twists of the story keep you engrossed.

The sting of underclass payback doesn't rival that of, say, Parasite, but the movie taps into the same simmering rage of the have-nots, shafted out of an unyielding system in a perilously unbalanced world. It could almost be considered the anti-Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel's protagonist in that 2009 Best Picture Oscar winner maintains his inherent goodness to the end, making his fortune by honest means. In The White Tiger, the lowly narrator played with rascally charm by newcomer Adarsh Gourav responds to the rude wakeup call of experience by pushing aside his humanity to embrace ruthlessness and cynicism — with a conspiratorial wink.

The association between Bahrani — who surveyed the American economic divide in 2014's blistering 99 Homes — and novelist Adiga goes back to their days as classmates at Columbia. Being respectively Iranian American and Indian, they connected as outsiders before either of them had found his professional destination and have been looking for a joint project for years. Adiga's novel, with its themes of class struggle and murky morality, is a good fit for the filmmaker, even if the granular literary detail of the material gets him bogged down in a meandering midsection.

Bahrani starts in Delhi, with the life-changing 2007 mishap that opens the eyes of ingratiating manservant Balram (Gourav). For once, he's not in the driver's seat but a passenger when Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the wife of his American-educated boss Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), takes the wheel in a drunken joy ride and hits a pedestrian in a poor part of the city. The fallout from that accident gradually transforms Balram from a man raised to believe in the honorable destiny of the selfless servant into a self-made businessman lining his pockets in an India of booming economic growth.

Seizing control of the narrative in amusing voiceover, he cuts to Bangalore three years later, admitting right off the bat that despite the multitude of higher powers available to Muslims, Christians and Hindus in his country, he chooses "to play it both ways." Balram, who now has a shiny new wardrobe and slick ponytail, concedes, "The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time."

The wily humor embedded in Adiga's story is evident from the framing device of a letter Balram pens to the visiting Chinese premier soliciting investment, graced with ass-kissing preamble about the Chinese being "great lovers of freedom and individual liberty." Talking up the shared opportunities for their countries, he writes: "I think we can agree that America is so yesterday. India and China are so tomorrow." He continues by expounding that "the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man," offering to share the story of his own rise from servitude, free of charge. He also acknowledges straight off that he's wanted by police, "due to an act of entrepreneurship."

The film's mostly rollicking journey encompasses Balram's humble village roots under the thumb of his sly Granny (Kamlesh Gill), who pulled him out of school to work from a young age and took every rupee his family ever made; his years as a loyal driver to the scion of a moneyed Dhanbad family with political connections to the graft-friendly "Great Socialist" (Swaroop Sampat, hilariously venal); and his relocation across the country to become the owner of a successful fleet of cabs.

In what seems an excess of fidelity to the source material, Bahrani overloads on the colorful metaphors: But that of the title ("the rarest of animals that comes along only once in a generation") is less important than that of the rooster coop ("They can see and smell the blood; they know they are next, and yet they don't rebel.") Still, despite the heaping serve of exposition, the backgrounding zips along briskly enough. There's plenty of visual texture, as well as droll observations in Balram's narration about the mistake of being poor in a free Democracy, and the skepticism with which the average trustworthy Indian servant views the promise of emancipation.

Telling glimpses introduce the Stork (Mahesh Manrekar), the landlord who collects a third of all the villagers' earnings; and his feared and loathed eldest son, the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). But it's handsome youngest son Ashok, the very picture of confidence behind his aviator sunglasses, who catches Balram's eye in a moment of swooning bromance: "I knew then, this was the master for me." He talks his way into a job as driver to Ashok, who seems more enlightened than his caste-conscious family though still condescends to Balram in ways both subtle and overt. The class gap is more veiled in Pinky, who seems appalled at how deeply the maximum aspiration to be a servant has been ingrained into Balram.

The dynamic among the three principals is nicely drawn. Gourav quietly slips in notes of ambition and cunning beneath incessantly smiling Balram's bowing and scraping. He learns the art of skimming a little off the top from his fellow servants, who live in the grungy car-park basements of ultramodern concrete citadels where their bosses occupy the airy penthouses.

Charismatic Bollywood star Rao deftly balances a Western-schooled urge to tell himself he's a fair-minded man with the unmistakable air of privileged entitlement, reverting to type like his father when in a tight spot. "I wish I had a simple life like Balram," he says in a tone-deaf moment of alcohol-fueled self-pity. Chopra Jonas (also an executive producer, as is Ava DuVernay) brings emotional depth to a smaller role as a kind but conflicted independent woman who perhaps sees in Balram a sobering mirror reflection of her own origins in a Queens bodega basement.

There are poignant insights into Balram's attempts to better himself, with patronizing encouragement from Ashok and Pinky, such as his pride in learning to brush his teeth for the first time as an adult. But the auto accident, and the family's insistent coverup, fuel his slow-building resentment. A bag stuffed with cash destined for "The Great Socialist" presents a rare opportunity to escape the rooster coop. In a nod to Slumdog Millionaire, Balram says, "Don't think there's a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it."

Considering that the rags-to-riches story contains bitter betrayal, disillusionment, abandonment of familial responsibility, chilling coercion and even murder, Bahrani keeps the tone relatively light. Italian cinematographer Paolo Carnera (the Gomorrah series) brings a sharp eye for color and is adept at establishing visual distinctions among the various locations, particularly between the muddy village and the teeming city streets, where his camerawork becomes jostled and nervy. And even if the pacing falters here and there, the evocative score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (who did the music for Ozark), keeps things generally buoyant, sprinkled with Indian songs and hip-hop tracks.

Gourav's disarming Balram provides an engaging center, gifted with the playful art of the storyteller as he shares his belief that there are only two ways out of poverty in India: crime and politics. With a smile that no longer aims only to please, he asks the entertaining film's key question: "Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love, or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?"

Production companies: Lava Media, Noruz Films, Array Filmworks
Distributor: Netflix (Jan. 13 in limited theatrical; Jan. 22 streaming)
Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vijay Maurya, Nalneesh, Vedant Sinha, Swaroop Sampat, Kamlesh Gill, Sanket Shanware, Harshit Mahawar
Director-screenwriter: Rahmin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga
Producers: Mukul Deora, Ramin Bahrani
Executive producers: Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Ken Kamins, Paul Ritchie, Prem Akkaruju, Ava DuVernay, Sarah Bremner
Director of photography: Paolo Carnera
Production designer: Chad Keith

Costume designer: Smriti Chauhan
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Editor: Tim Streeto
Casting: Tess Joseph
Rated R, 125 minutes