In 'White Tiger,' A Dickensian Rags-To-Riches Story Turns Psychological Thriller

Jan 22, 2021

The year 2008 saw the publication of Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger and the release of the film Slumdog Millionaire, two stories about young men escaping poverty and defying the odds against the backdrop of a rapidly globalizing India. But Adiga's novel was a far more cynical and morally unsettling piece of work, with a protagonist who came into his fortune through acts of theft, deception and worse. Now, 12 years later, there's a darkly funny new movie adaptation of The White Tiger, and it plays even more like the flipside to Slumdog Millionaire's pure-hearted optimism. There's even a cheeky line in the trailer about how there's no million-rupee game-show prize at the end of the story.

That story is narrated in flashback by its protagonist, Balram, played by a superb Adarsh Gourav. We meet a younger version of Balram growing up in a poor coal-mining village, where he shows early promise as a student, until his domineering grandmother pulls him out of school and puts him to work in a tea shop.

But Balram is smart and ambitious, and he has bigger things in mind. Some years later, in 2007, he lands a job working as a driver for a wealthy businessman known as the Stork. Balram works his way into the good graces of one of the Stork's sons, Ashok, played by Rajkummar Rao.

Ashok was educated in the U.S., which is where he met his wife, Pinky, played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas. They're a young, beautiful couple, and they seem kinder than the others: They chafe at how casually the rest of the family abuse their servants, and Ashok and Balram strike up a close friendship. But when tragedy strikes and the family's security is threatened, Balram quickly becomes a scapegoat, destroying any illusions he may have harbored about his privileged place in the household.

In a way, The White Tiger taps into the same vein of class rage that fueled recent eat-the-rich thrillers like Parasite and Knives Out. Gourav's marvelous performance shows us Balram's inner turmoil as his gratitude toward his employers gives way to anger. And so he begins to rebel, at one point telling us the various tricks that he and other drivers use to secretly cheat their bosses.

The White Tiger is like a Dickensian rags-to-riches story by way of a Patricia Highsmith psychological thriller, but Balram's wickedly conspiratorial narration gives it an extra layer of satire. He unfolds his story as a kind of high-risk business plan: When most of the country lives in poverty, he argues, anyone trying to break out will have to resort to cutthroat tactics. Throughout the film, Balram likens the poor to roosters in a cage, unquestioning in their acceptance of an economic system that is forever stacked against them. That's not the only unsubtle animal metaphor here: Balram himself is the fabled white tiger of the title, a rare and remarkable beast that will forge its own destiny.

The Iranian American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who wrote and directed the movie, has always been fascinated by stories of poverty and survival. He began his career with low-budget New York dramas like Man Push Cart, and since then he's branched out to explore the socio-economic complexities of rural and suburban America in films like At Any Price and 99 Homes.

Even on the bigger, splashier international canvas of The White Tiger, there's an attractive modesty to Bahrani's approach. He doesn't sensationalize or aestheticize poverty — or wealth, for that matter. And despite the movie's considerable visual energy and upbeat musical selections, Bahrani doesn't turn India into a flashy spectacle. He tries to keep his focus on the characters and the desperate circumstances in which they find themselves.

For about two-thirds of the movie, that approach works beautifully; even with its occasional lapses in pacing, it never loses your attention. But I'm not entirely convinced that Bahrani is temperamentally in sync with the darkness at the heart of this story. His past films could be pessimistic and brutally unsentimental, but they also had a striking moral clarity, and there's something about the gleeful amorality of The White Tiger that ultimately eludes him. The film rushes through its violent closing passages, as if it were unwilling to fully grapple with what it's showing us. By the end, Balram may have become quite the businessman, but The White Tiger doesn't quite close the deal.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel "The White Tiger" told the story of a young man dealing with corruption, poverty and class warfare in modern-day India. The Aravind Adiga novel has now been adapted for the screen by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review of "The White Tiger," which begins streaming today on Netflix.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The year 2008 saw the publication of Aravind Adiga's novel "The White Tiger" and the release of the film "Slumdog Millionaire," two stories about young men escaping poverty and defying the odds against the backdrop of a rapidly globalizing India. But Adiga's novel was a far more cynical and morally unsettling piece of work, with a protagonist who came into his fortune through acts of theft, deception and worse.

Now, 12 years later, there's a darkly funny new movie adaptation of "The White Tiger," and it plays even more like the flip side to "Slumdog Millionaire's" pure-hearted optimism. There's even a cheeky line in the trailer about how there's no million-rupee game show prize at the end of the story.

That story is narrated in flashback by its protagonist, Balram, played by a superb Adarsh Gourav. We meet a younger version of Balram growing up in a poor coal mining village, where he shows early promise as a student until his domineering grandmother pulls him out of school and puts him to work in a tea shop.

But Balram is smart and ambitious, and he has bigger things in mind. Some years later, he lands a job working as a driver for a wealthy businessman known as the Stork. Balram works his way into the good graces of one of the Stork's sons, Ashok, played by Rajkummar Rao.

Ashok was educated in the U.S., which is where he met his wife, Pinky, played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas. They're a young, beautiful couple, and they seemed kinder than the others. They chafe at how casually the rest of the family abuse their servants, and Ashok and Balram strike up a close friendship. But when tragedy strikes and the family's security is threatened, Balram quickly becomes a scapegoat, destroying any illusions he may have harbored about his privileged place in the household.

In a way, "The White Tiger" taps into the same vein of class rage that fueled recent eat-the-rich thrillers like "Parasite" and "Knives Out." Gourav's marvelous performance shows us Balram's inner turmoil as his gratitude toward his employers gives way to anger. And so he begins to rebel, at one point telling us the various tricks that he and other drivers use to secretly cheat their bosses.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHITE TIGER")

ADARSH GOURAV: (As Balram) No. 1, give your master phony invoices for repairs that are not necessary.

Thank you, sir.

Two, sell your master's petrol to other drivers.

As you gain confidence, cruise around picking up and dropping off paying customers. Delhi has many pickup points. Over time, you will learn them all. When I looked at that cash, I didn't feel guilt. I felt rage.

CHANG: "The White Tiger" is like a Dickensian rags-to-riches story by way of a Patricia Highsmith psychological thriller. But Balram's wickedly conspiratorial narration gives it an extra layer of satire. He unfolds his story as a kind of high-risk business plan. When most of the country lives in poverty, he argues, anyone trying to break out will have to resort to cutthroat tactics. Throughout the film, Balram likens the poor to roosters in a cage, unquestioning in their acceptance of an economic system that is forever stacked against them. That's not the only unsubtle animal metaphor here. Balram himself is the fabled white tiger of the title, a rare and remarkable beast that will forge its own destiny.

The Iranian American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who wrote and directed the movie, has always been fascinated by stories of poverty and survival. He began his career with low-budget New York dramas like "Man Push Cart." And since then, he's branched out to explore the socioeconomic complexities of rural and suburban America in films like "At Any Price" and "99 Homes."

Even on the bigger, splashier international canvas of "The White Tiger," there's an attractive modesty to Bahrani's approach. He doesn't sensationalize or aestheticize poverty - or wealth, for that matter. And despite the movie's considerable visual energy and upbeat musical selections, Bahrani doesn't turn India into a flashy spectacle. He tries to keep his focus on the characters and the desperate circumstances in which they find themselves.

For about two-thirds of the movie, that approach works beautifully; even with its occasional lapses in pacing, it never loses your attention. But I'm not entirely convinced that Bahrani is temperamentally in sync with the darkness at the heart of the story. His past films could be pessimistic and brutally unsentimental, but they also had a striking moral clarity. And there's something about the gleeful amorality of "The White Tiger" that ultimately eludes him. The film rushes through its violent closing passages as if it were unwilling to fully grapple with what it's showing us. By the end, Balram may have become quite the businessman, but "The White Tiger" doesn't quite close the deal.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The White Tiger," now streaming on Netflix. On Monday's show, after damaging his vocal cords trying to be a rock singer, New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto became fascinated with the human voice. He'll talk about how the voice evolved, how it works and how different voices affect us, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. His new book is called "This Is The Voice." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OSCAR PETERSON TRIO'S "YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OSCAR PETERSON TRIO'S "YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.