Animal symbolism has long found relevance in the human experience, and it’s fitting as human beings are really nothing but animals with debt. The White Tiger double dips into the idea with people alternately described as roosters in a cage awaiting slaughter or as the elusively rare and special white tiger — which, despite its recognizably unique traits still winds up caged for the pleasure of others. Both are cynical takes, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the film’s darkly humorous, cruelly honest, and deeply pessimistic view of humanity.
Balram (Adarsh Gourev) runs a successful car service company, but his journey there was anything but traditional. It’s his voiceover that narrates the tale — he’s writing a letter to the Chinese premier in the hopes of building a business relationship — and he recounts the frequently grim path that brought him from a childhood spent in the poverty of a small village to the big city, contact with some of the country’s wealthiest people, and his own financial independence. He’s a self-made man, and all it took was manipulation, cruelty, the accidental death of a child, and one very intentional murder.
The White Tiger is in some ways The Secret of My Success (1987) meets Goodfellas (1991), but blended into a swirling concoction of American capitalism and India’s caste system. Balram is a man driven by ambition to succeed, but what starts as a series of small lies snowballs to include cover-ups, bribery, and the aforementioned murder. As he shares his story, what appears at first to be feelings of regret and guilt instead manifest as concerns over vanity. He’s not sorry for the things he’s done — they simply had to happen for him to get what he wants — and the film captures that harsh reality with vibrant energy and personality.
Writer/director Ramin Bahrani adapts Aravind Adiga‘s book and captures well a world of haves and have nots and what it takes to cross that line on an upward trajectory. Balram explains how the two groups in India boil down to upper and lower castes and how servants come mostly but not exclusively from the latter. His large family back in the village grows increasingly demanding in their need for his money, and the matriarch makes plans to marry him off, and it quickly comes clear that Balram is an island unto himself with no loyalty to anyone else. He’s arguably a sociopath to some degree, but his calm, focused voice is quick to easily explain away why things happen the way they do. Gourev is almost mesmerizing in the tone, cadence, and pathology of his words, and he leaves viewers with a defense of both capitalism and crime.
Two elements that rarely work in films — no matter how frequently they’re attempted — are actually used in The White Tiger to good effect. One is the voiceover which runs throughout the film and focuses on feeling and intent rather than plot or observation, and unlike far too many films it never feels intrusive or redundant. The other is an in medias res opening that shows Balram involved in a hit and run. Typically these play at the price of later suspense, but here the increased drama helps fuel and fracture viewer sympathies in smart ways.
Balram says that Indian entrepreneurs have to be “straight and crooked, sly and sincere,” and it’s hard to fault the man for many of his choices having seen both the world he’s come from and the one he’s “allowed” to end up within. The specifics belong to his Indian culture, but the bulk of it all should feel familiar to anyone who’s actually seen the high price of living the Dream of looking like a success both to yourself and society at large. Whether in the business world or the criminal one, the drive to succeed — to have others envious of that success — is a powerful drug, and Gourav walks a fine line in The White Tiger with a character juggling both our endearment and our disgust.
Our time with others isn’t as rich, in part because we’re seeing them through Balram’s eyes, but the performances and characters compel all the same. Rajkummar Rao plays the young, progressive son of a powerful and wealthy man, while Priyanka Chopra brings his Americanized wife to life. Both characters feel disdain for the caste system and the accepted norms of servant treatment, but their kindness towards Balram is tenuous. Rao and Chopra do strong work winning over Balram and viewers alike only to reveal cracks as various pressures mounts.
Bahrani’s previous films, including 2014’s 99 Homes, often feature characters prone to morally ambiguous choices despite the purity of what initially got them moving. He uses humor and charm to nudge them towards antihero status, but The White Tiger included, they make clear judgment on a world that too often champions the cynical and corrupt. As Balram himself says, reality doesn’t allow for a poor man to win his way out of poverty on a popular television game show. It’s a sly little dig at the fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) in the face of far harsher truths.
“The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave,” says Balram using someone else’s words, and in the world of The White Tiger it’s an acknowledgment that’s as freeing as it is damning. You stop existing only to serve others when you find something that’s irresistible to you, but if you’re not careful, the quest can itself become your new master.