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
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
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
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.