The White Tiger Review: Bold, brutal and brilliant
For what could be one of the most striking literary commentaries on India’s caste system, Ramin Bahrani’s cinematic adaptation of The White Tiger is just as jarring, never for once loosening its grip over the viewers’ attention.
Ramin Bahrani’s cinematic adaptation of The White Tiger accomplishes the first and the most primal aim of a story like that one- it leaves you with an aftertaste strong enough for you to milk much beyond the end of the credit rolls. And the key driver in this accomplishment is none other than lead actor Adarsh Gourav.
Aravind Adiga’s Booker prize-winning novel The White Tiger is a scalding commentary on India’s socio-economic hierarchies, the caste system in particular, with the protagonist, Balram Halwai, using his relentless ambition to turn the system on its head and rise above the constraints imposed on him by way of his marginalised identity. The film didn’t stray too far from that, as the screenplay plays itself out through Balram’s eyes and voice, his perspective unfettered in its hatred for the system that is rigged against him.
The story is fairly simple. Balram escapes his predestined job in his family’s village tea shop and makes it as a driver in the household of an affluent, upper-caste family. Balram harnesses indomitable ambition- he abhors the life that he has been destined to live and he abhors how unwilling people are to break out of these “rooster coops”. He wants to get out. So he observes his employers’ world, as one of their many servants, first from the outside looking in, persistently trying to slither his way in. Living in close quarters with obscenely powerful people exposes him to the ease with which they make their way in the world, wielding their power and privilege shamelessly, exploiting the labour of the marginalized while depriving and silencing them. Balram’s subservient ambition takes a drastic turn towards spite, and the plot then escalates into the climax, which turns out well for him, but not for everyone.
But who is the man behind the character? Adarsh Gourav- omnipresent through every frame, whether in close-ups or in the rearview mirror of the car his character gets paid to drive. Gourav embodies Balram’s complexities perfectly- his wallflower-like presence, the indignation rising under his servility, his disgust for the casteist, classist rut he is stuck in. Adarsh Gourav’s performance is so riveting, it grips not only the viewer’s attention but of anyone who might be passing you as you watch the film on Netflix. I can attest to that- I started watching the film alone and by the end, my whole family had joined in, hooked onto every passing frame (the cinematography also gets ample credit here). He filled even a silent gaze with such intention, that at times, his co-stars’ performances almost seemed frivolous. Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas had strong screen presence, but their performance seemed choppy at places, especially with their contrived American accents.
Commentaries on caste and its brutal economics are present throughout the film, especially in the form of Balram’s incisive internal monologue. The monologue is brazen and unabashed- and rightfully so, for leaving the audience feeling warm and cosy was never what the film sought to do. But the monologue often sounded too verbose for a film, requiring way too much focus and effort than a voiceover usually deserves.
The editing is taut, not a single frame is wasted- every moment in the film weaving seamlessly into the overarching theme of inequality. The soundtrack and cinematography perfectly complement the screenplay in unsettling the viewers and creating a restlessness, while maintaining the predictable polish of a Netflix production.
The screenplay, unto itself, served its purpose, and for a 2-hour adaptation, it did a brilliant job. But I do have a few bones to pick with it. Aravind Adiga’s novel had been criticised for embodying a privileged gaze towards those belonging to the oppressed caste. Instances like Balram agreeing with his employer when he calls him ‘half baked’, reducing him and his caste and class to a market for his business idea. Or with Balram’s never-ending fascination towards his employers’ lifestyle, (dazed by their perfume for example), or his disgust towards those of his fate not wanting to break out of it. The problematic imposition of these sentiments on an underprivileged character by a privileged author has been carried forward into the film. It is understandable that these are indelible traits of the novel’s protagonist, but to have them play out so visually somehow makes it a little more difficult to come to terms with.
Cinematic adaptations are works of art unto themselves, and loyalty to the literature (or the lack thereof) are neither to the film’s credit nor discredit. But it is worth acknowledging films that make you want to go back and read the book. The White Tiger has ticked this box, which many film adaptations fail to do, despite being great films on their own right.
Overall, Bahrani’s The White Tiger is a brilliant 2-hour watch with an irreplaceable lead actor. However, it is not a film to be watched casually. It is incisive, provocative, and it commands the viewers’ attention entirely towards itself. Masterful storytelling- check. A captivating performance by the lead actor- check. Haunting visuals and taut editing- check, and check. The White Tiger is most definitely worth a watch, if not many.