An honest social commentary doesn’t always have to feel punishing all the time—take Ramin Bahrani‘s The White Tiger for example. Like his work, 99 Homes, unraveling the harsh reality of the 2008 housing crisis in the US, his Netflix bound film points out everything that is wrong in India—crooked law system, corruption, religious discrimination, misogyny, forced marriage, and, as the center-piece, modern slavery—in a story about a slave cunningly exploits all the flaws to build an empire. However depraved and morally corrupted the system is, under Bahrani, the story is always about the human within the system—hustling and struggling to rebel against the chaotic order.
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The story is framed in an unusually candid letter from a servant-turned-entrepreneur to the Chinese Premier visiting what the man perceives as India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore. The man is Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav). In 2007, he makes his way out of a rural slum where his big family lives in inescapable poverty to become a personal chauffeur for the rich Mr. Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), son of his village’s former landlord, and his American-Indian wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). Balram has a particular view of how the world works around him, explaining the lives of Indian men as living in a rooster coop; he also believes in the shift of global power, where the world is no longer leaning towards white folks, but under the lead of China and, as he believes, India. Therefore, he’s convinced that he can make the Premier relate to his story as they share the same belief. His eyes are set to exploiting any chance he’s got (and in his country, he found many) to fulfill his goals.
Adapted from the book by Indian writer, Aravind Adiga, who happens to be the director’s colleague, The White Tiger finds consensus between the director’s vision and the writer’s real concern—especially about the caste system. Bahrami incorporates the concerns eloquently into a moving image that sometimes feel disturbing but never dishonest. It’s almost felt the film is a finely curated collection of problems in India nudged in some blatant imageries or unapologetic dialogues or away in the background. The story gets bleaker on the second half onwards, but it’s never less sophisticated. It always finds a way to inject thoughtful commentaries about everything in India, be it social, political, cultural, and others—one thing at a time from a commoner’s point of view. But, is Balram really a commoner? He often thinks the otherwise.
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That’s where the titular feline comes into the equation in a proverbial sense. A white tiger is an extraordinary creature—coming only once in every generation, at least that’s what Balram’s deceased father explained. That somehow becomes a credo he’s living for; he might no be aware of it, but whatever his sharp observation comes into fruition, the white tiger paradigm comes forth. In portraying the character, Gourav delivers a breakthrough performance with enough sensitivity to carry the story as if it’s his own. Balram is resilient and confident to his wit; that’s how he ventures in whatever life options he take. It’s as if The White Tiger blatantly exclaims that whatever India needs at this moment is a man like Balram, who doesn’t wait to be certain that he’s the white tiger. It’s inarguably a straightforward story about poverty; but, it’s not a story about the haplessness of people drowned in it. It’s a transformative personal story that quintessentially mirrors the country’s situation as India begins to peep into the possible future.
At its darkest moment, The White Tiger delivers something unthinkable given its savvy build up to turn things upside down. When it snaps, the story unravels its real transformation marked by servant Balram’s complete evolution into entrepreneur Balram. Given the rich, thoroughly planned out escalation, the follow-up is a little lackluster as if it misses a beat or runs out of time. The transformation is abrupt, cunning, and at times turning a blind eye to the sickness that the protagonist has observed previously. However, it might be a perfect mirror for the country on its relentless steps forward to becoming one of the world’s leading force—it’s turning a blind eye to some explicit flaws and focusing on the opportunities instead.