"...a potent, visually arresting-coming of age story..."

The Corruption of a Good Man

(020621) White Tiger (currently streaming exclusively on Netflix) is about an initially optimistic and motivated young man who gradually learns the harsh realities of the Indian caste system. Although there are no drug themes in the film, the gradual corruption of a basically decent individual recalls the plotlines of some classic cable shows such as Breaking Bad and Ozark.

The acting, directing and cinematography are all first rate, and the film is likely to receive multiple award nominations or it might even end up as a best picture contender in this year’s Oscar race. The film was adapted from the highly acclaimed book of the same name by Arvind Adiga, and it would be surprising if the film did not earn a best adapted screenplay nomination.

It would be hard to imagine any other film capturing both the full rapturous beauty and repulsive ugliness of an entire country any better. This film does for India what City of God (2005) did for Brazil.

The film’s Iranian/American director, Ramin Bahrani, also made Chop Shop (2007), which was chosen by the late Roger Ebert as one of the best films of the 2000s, as well as Man Push Cart (2005) which was a big hit at Sundance.

White Tiger is framed with an opening and conclusion with direct narration from Belram Laxmangarh (Adarsh Gourav), a now rich entrepreneur who expresses the view that the poor are just like chickens in a coop. The whole point of the movie can be distilled in the quote, “Men born in the light (like my master) have a choice to be good, men born in a coop (like me) don‘t have a choice.”

He recounts his life story plus discusses his struggle against his class limitations. As a child, a teacher tells Belram that he is a white tiger or special gifted being who is only born once a generation. It is implied in the film that a person may require the savagery of a white tiger to rise in that system.

Belram gets a scholarship but because of his family’s poverty he is forced to work in a teahouse full time to support them, and he has to drop out of school. Throughout the whole film, his family never does anything to better their station and they show absolutely no remorse at totally dragging him down. They resemble the selfish and ugly impoverished characters in Comedia All’Italiana films by Ettore Scola rather than the noble peasants in Italian neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves.

As an adult Belram looks up to a successful, educated young man, Ashtok (Rajkummar Rao) who gives him a job as chauffeur. Ashtok has everything that Belram wants. He is wealthy and was well educated in the USA, where he met his smart, cultured and gorgeous American born wife, Pinky (played by the Miss World beauty contest winner, Priyanka Chopra Jonas) who has come over to live with him in India.

Belram notices right away that Pinky and Ashtok actually treat him with respect while the rest of the family basically sees him as some type of subhuman vermin. He even begins to see them as friends, but something terrible happens which shows him just how expendable and disrespected he is by the whole family.

Pinky especially seems revolted by how the family and the Stork (an evil landlord who bleeds everyone dry) treats Belram, and she is also appalled at the condescending attitude that many males exhibit toward women in India. This leads to much friction between her and the Ashtok’s dad, who frequently acts like a sexist and classicist jerk. Also, her husband told her that he wants to stay in India for only six months, but he seems like he wants to stay there permanently. But Pinky never objects to the actual system of servant/master just the overly harsh way that some individuals are treated in it, so she may be just a sympathetic Indian version of what Americans call a “Karen.”

At one-point Belram goes back to visit with his family, and he is taken aback by the extreme poverty compared to where his employer lives. They seem to oppose him evolving or showing any evidence of progress, When he announces he wants to be a vegan, the family practically laughs at him. Also, he is alarmed when his grandmother suggests that he must be fatten up for his future wedding with a woman he never met. He is against getting married because he knows following tradition in this case might ruin his chances in the bigger world and in effect marry him to poverty.

Along the way he gradually starts to trade in his moral compass for wealth and power. It is harder to stay innocent once you find out how the world really works. The first hint this is happening is early on in the film when he forces the other driver to leave by threatening to expose his secret identity as a Muslin (His employers’ family hates Muslims).

Towards the end, Belram gives a grim closing statement and a stern warning to privileged viewers that the lower class and marginalized races will eventually rise up, rebel, and take power. The ending ends up sidestepping the easy sentimentality of
Slum Dog Millionaire and is as perfect an expression of class resentment and loathing as the MIA song “Paper Planes.”

White Tiger’s only flaw is that is also slightly formulaic (although it takes a few left turns). It combines some elements and themes of both
Slum Dog Millionaire (which it betters) and Parasite, but it is never nearly as edgy or biting as that film. Actually, if Parasite, which was a complete masterpiece, had not been so fresh in my mind, I might have given White Tiger four stars (it was a close call.)

But the film is still a potent, visually arresting, and highly recommended coming of age story that will take American viewers to another reality which is in some ways disturbingly similar to our own.

In English and Hindi with English subtitles.

Directed & Written by:    Ramin Bahrani
Starring:    Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao 
Released:    011321, 1/22/21 on Netflix
Length:    125 minutes
Rating:    R for language, violence, and sexual material
Available on:    Netflix

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

WHITE TIGER © 2021 Lava Media
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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