I really enjoyed this adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s darkly satirical Booker-winning novel, one of the better book-to-screen transitions from the recent times.
I read The White Tiger years ago, and while I forgot the details of the story I could still remember the sheer barbed, spiteful energy of Adiga’s written word, which the film captures incredibly well. Just like the novel, the movie is a scathing and compelling commentary on modern India’s rigid social structures, telling the story of a smart and wily social climber and his rise from a poor village boy to a successful entrepreneur. On a more personal scale, it’s a story about servitude, family, betrayal, and a complex mix of love and loathing.
One of the less successful aspects of the book that the film unfortunately preserves is the framing device, with the main hero narrating his life story through the emails he writes to the visiting Chinese premier; I thought it was forced and annoyingly “quirky” in the novel and it feels likewise in the movie. I also could have done without the film’s freeze frame/voiceover introduction which spoils one of the story’s most shocking and dramatic moments for no good reason. These however were my only real quibbles and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the movie from now on.
Our hero in this not-quite-Slumdog-Millionaire rags to riches story (which takes a sarcastic shot at Danny Boyle’s fairytale at one point) is Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a young man from a dirt-poor village that he describes as a part of India’s “darkness”, filled with the masses of poor and uneducated. As a young boy, Balram’s academic smarts earn him a promise of a scholarship in Delhi, but this hope of escape is cruelly snatched away when his father is unable to pay off the village landlord, nicknamed the Stork, and Balram never sets a foot inside the school again. As a grown man, Balram has no desire to end his days in destitute misery like his father, and manages to convince his tyrannical grandmother to sponsor his driving lessons, so that he can get a job as a secondary driver for the Stork’s family.
Soon, we get to see the first glimpse of Balram’s ruthlessness when he manipulates his way into becoming the primary personal driver for the Stork’s younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who is back from the US with his Indian-born, American-raised wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). In Ashok and Pinky’s eyes, Balram is sweet, smiling, endlessly loyal and perfectly subservient, though since they pride themselves on being liberal and modern-minded, they make a show of protesting his deferential grovelling.
How much of this grovelling is purely strategic, even Balram himself is unable to say, wondering out loud whether his feelings towards his kindly if condescending master are love under the facade of resentment, or resentment under the facade of love. Still, the master/servant relationship more or less works to everyone’s satisfaction, until a terrible tragic accident throws it into crisis, exposing Ashok and Pinky’s surface-level egalitarianism and unleashing Balram’s long-suppressed rage and bitterness.
Though the movie deals with a number of dark and heavy themes, it is an enormously entertaining, pacy, propulsive watch, with energetic camera work and punchy, poppy soundtrack. Adarsh Gourav, alternately cherubic and sinister, does an amazing job convincingly portraying Balram’s dark transformation, as he comes to the conclusion that he must be willing to do things a normal person wouldn’t dare to do in order to escape the “rooster coop” of underclass. Though the movie doesn’t explore it to the same degree, there’s an idea that Balram is caged by his family as much as he is by his class, and that breaking away from the cage of family ties means violating some primal human laws. I also appreciated that, just like in Parasite, the privileged wealthy couple is not treated entirely without sympathy, making them well-rounded characters with their own understandable anxieties.