Movie Review: The White Tiger

Though we’re almost four weeks into January, we’re still getting a number of films coming to our home screens that are officially from 2020, a situation that will continue to the last day of February thanks to special rules drawn up by the AMPAS Board of Directors because of the pandemic. But the 2021 films are starting to poke through, one of them being the SCARFACE-esque THE WHITE TIGER.

Based on the 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning debut novel of the same name by Indian author Aravind Adiga, THE WHITE TIGER tells the fictional story of Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw driver from an impoverished village in north-central India, who is told at a young age by a school inspector that he’s like a white tiger – a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. His opportunity to go to a good school, however, is nixed by his strong-willed grandmother who sees Balram as a money-earner for the family and she immediately puts him to work in a tea shop to help pay for his cousin’s dowry. Balram (played as an adult by Adarsh Gourav), though, never loses his desire to want more for himself even though Indian societal rules dictate that he’ll always be like the rooster – happily going through life waiting to be slaughtered and fed to the rich. After learning how to drive, he convinces his town’s landlord, a man he refers to as “The Stork”, to hire him as a driver for his younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has returned to India with his American-born wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Though the young couple treats Balram well, he soon comes to the realisation that he’s really nothing more than their rooster. With that, Balram sets in motion plans to change his life and become the white tiger that he feels he was destined to be.

Many have compared this story to SCARFACE and I certainly see the similarity, though THE WHITE TIGER doesn’t have the hyperviolence, profanity or scenes of drug use that the earlier film is now legendary for. So how are they similar, you’re wondering? They’re both tales of an outsider who relentlessly pursues the idea that he is meant for bigger things even if it results in the destruction of his family, and who ultimately drops his moral compass into the gutter to achieve his goal. THE WHITE TIGER story, which begins in 2010, is framed around an upcoming visit of then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) to India and Balram, wearing chic clothes, his hair oiled up, sitting behind a laptop, is writing to Wen (NOT “Mr. Jiabao”, as we keep hearing the Indian newsreaders in the background mistakenly refer to him!) in the hopes of meeting the Chinese leader when he arrives. Balram sees himself as emblematic of the “new India” where entrepreneurs like him are rocketing his country into the 21st Century. We see that Balram – sans pony tail and waxed moustache – is wanted for murder and the movie spends the next two hours teasing out how that happened.

I understand that the book is quite humorous and certainly the movie has its lighter moments but where the movie loses points is its smugness. Its message, ultimately, is that in India, with its endemic corruption and classism, if you can’t join ’em, you beat ’em. Though Balram is intellectually smart and essentially a good person (for most of the story), it doesn’t matter when you’re of the sweet-making (“halwai”) caste. Being a street-smart crook is the shortcut that will take him out of his preordained fate. Maybe he’s right but Balram’s sudden descent into amorality (both times occurring after he faints) doesn’t make him a character that you want to cheer on. Perhaps that was screenwriter-director Ramin Bahrani’s (MAN PUSH CART) intent as Balram takes a swipe at the film SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE early on in the story. We’re not supposed to like him but perhaps he is the “new India”.

THE WHITE TIGER is available now on Netflix. If you haven’t figured it out already, I am not a fan of this film. Many others have and will disagree with me.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 29th, 8:30 am HK time!

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