A young entrepreneur who runs a fleet of cars, Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) reflects upon his life and how he got to where he is: how, as an intelligent and literate young boy who was forced to quit school and go into manual labour, he was able to gain employment as a driver to a wealthy family, including the seemingly affable Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his formidable and outspoken American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), and how, after years of abuse and being pushed around, he was able to finally escape his life of servitude and to make something of himself, though through some unscrupulous means.
First and foremost, The White Tiger is all about India’s caste system, which seems to essentially split the population into rich masters and suffering servants, and I have to admit that this is the first film I’ve seen that specifically includes said system and, although I’m obviously aware of class divide in general, I had not heard of this caste system prior to viewing the movie; this system is apparent from beginning to end and throughout the feature, we are made to see the juxtaposition between the two classes: we witness the well off travelling in fancy cars, getting their feet cleaned by their subordinates, and travelling to massive hotel complexes with vast golf courses, all the while the “low caste” live terribly in dirty slums, having to reside in underground shanty towns, cockroaches included, while their masters live the high life. Life for low caste men, women and children is shown to be utterly hopeless, the ideal future, the best possible outcome, that’s presented to them is the prospect of one day owning a small shack in a slum and we see that the only way to escape the “rooster coop” (where all these hopless individuals are apparently stuck – knowing that they’re going to be killed but never once daring to escape) is to resort to blackmail, theft and murder, as our anti-hero here is forced to resort to.
Because in this life, as one character proclaims, no million rupee gameshow is going to save them!
The wholly unfair and horrific caste system in India is certainly worthwhile subject matter and including it so predominately in the story definitely makes for a good film because it enlightens the audience as to what’s really going on in the world and the film succeeds in provoking and jarring its audience, providing a remarkably tense and often uncomfortable atmosphere as we are made to witness our main character being constantly abused and treated like a slave, and in the very beginning, it even finds time for some very brief humour as we witness Balram’s naivety when he shows that he has no idea what the internet is.
But although the film proves itself to be strong for the most part, fully capable of gripping its audience and stirring their emotions, I also believe that the pacing slackens after a while and, after about an hour, the film seems quite slow as it seems to go on for a while and the same message and material is repeated ad nauseum. The White Tiger is also a particularly grim and downbeat film and although the film exists for the purpose of showing us just how desperate and hopeless the situation of India’s poor is, it can be argued that The White Tiger is just a little too depressing for its own good and it may leave you in low spirits by the time the credits roll.
Looking at the performances, Adarsh Gourav is very strong as our protagonist Balram as, in the beginning, he effectively appears as a perfectly likeable young man who has been given a bad start in life but who really seems as though he wants to befriend and to help out his young masters, perfectly happy with his work as long as he earns money, but as the film goes on and he continues to be persecuted and pushed around by his brutish superiors, we see that he also has a dark side, first apparent when he decides to get rid of a former driver, Parasite style, and by the end, he becomes more of a villain as he’s forced into committing nefarious acts in order to survive and to escape a life of poverty; Gourav is able to infuse his character with several layers – both humour and darkness – and he ultimately proves to be a very strong and watchable lead.
Supporting him, Rajkummar Rao is also a very worthwhile presence as Balram’s young master Ashok and unlike everyone else, he’s one of the few people who treats Baram with a little respect and friendship (though, when the chips are down, he’s also capable of treating him just as unfairly as everyone else) and he proves to be quite an overall likeable and interesting character with plenty of depth, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas completes the central “trio” very well, playing Ashok’s American wife who is very vocal about how she hates the way that servants are treated and, throughout the film, we see her as Balram’s potential salvation and opportunity to escape and that he could maybe do better for himself if he would only listen to her; like Ashok, she’s one of the more supportable and likeable characters as, with her Western ways, she’s one of the few who treats Balram fairly and offers help and support (though, like Ashok, she’s also a bit of a hypocrite as she also shouts at him and, at one point, leaves him on the side of the road) and Chopra Jones is quite wonderful in this supporting role.
On a technical level, The White Tiger succeeds because Ramin Bahrani directs well, making great use of all the different locations, establishing the necessary uncomfortable atmosphere, and bringing the story to the screen with passion and commitment, the film looks good as the many locations are shot effectively, capturing both the appallingly dirty and horrible conditions of the poorer areas and the clean, sleek, and affluent world that the rich inhabit, and the film has a good score and soundtrack, using some upbeat tracks to raise the energy levels at certain times.