Film Review The White Tiger
By SUNITA VIJAY
‘Go to Old Delhi and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.’ – a quote from Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger.
It’s a thought-provoking observation by the narrator, a man with a feeble frame, resulting from years of poverty, accustomed to accept his servitude yet aspires to break the shackles. This is Balram Halwai – impoverished physique, over fertile mind!
The White Tiger is a thought-provoking and darkly comic account. It is directed by Iranian-American director, Ramin Bahrani. The story is Balram’s sardonic narration through the thread of emails written to Chinese premier. It has cynicism, admission, and pity but no regrets despite atrocious method used to rise. Life’s been cruel to Balram. He is poor, has a large family to feed, father who died leaving nothing but debt. His education plans are brutally suppressed. The pitiable financial crisis forces him to look for a job. He is exhilarated to be driving a top-end car, as a driver to Ashok (Raj Kummar Rao), son of a wealthy landlord.
Balram (Adarsh Gourav) understands his role the way ‘dogs understand their masters’. He has been conditioned to see himself as a servant. ‘Because the desire to be a servant has been bred into me; hammered into my skull’, he mentions. Ashok and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) are foreign returned. Both have an amiable attitude towards Balram, quite contrary to the detestable treatment by other members. However what’s bred in the bone, will come out in the flesh! Eventually, the DNA and upbringing reflect in Ashok’s behaviour too, subtly understandable to Balram.
Adarsh distinctly addresses each feeling with point-blank sincerity. As Balram, a servant captured by a servile mentality, his blood boils on being treated loathsomely by Ashok’s elder brother. His loyalty changes texture when he hits a turning point: a scene enacted extremely well where he is tactfully made to take the blame of an accident committed by Pinky. Adarsh’s expressions make us believe that it’s a curse to be born poor, and worse still to be born with an ambition. ‘The rich can afford to lose opportunities’ – but he feels he missed a golden opportunity while owning the charge. Balram opts for a cruel shortcut with no guilt to rattle his conscience. He discovers the exceptionalism in him, a sharpness to be like the white tiger who is born once in a generation, the one who can break the hen coop. The dormant ugliness erupts and flows to break all shackles and Balram displays immense clarity to shun the degrading thought of being born a servant and die one. This is what makes him stand out amidst his contemporaries who have accepted their lower tier role in society. Adarsh and Bahrani nail all the occurrences brilliantly.
The White Tiger prowls through darkness and light, through lives of the rich and poor, people with abundance and the ones who barely meet their ends simultaneously. The master’s palatial edifice against the mosquito and cockroaches infested dingy basement for servants is a wide gap, difficult to bridge; all captured well through clever cinematography. Taut screenplay, caustic dialogues and smart editing make the experience real. Adarsh Gourav leaves no stone unturned in bringing forth the nuances of Balram through cadence and gestures. His posture, slouched back, way of looking, reactions, expressions all are in sync with Balram, a man who artfully hides his rebellious feelings even in tormenting situations yet knows his plan.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas is also the executive producer and plays the part of Pinky, a rebellious woman who challenges the biased caste and class practices. Raj Kummar Rao carries a weird American accent. The polished actor has little scope to show his acting prowess.
I may fall short of words to praise Adarsh’s acting chops. As he drives Ashok or is indulged in errands at home, his prying eyes and attitude of a hunter is apparent. He makes the atmosphere ooze with craftiness. His uncanny expressions are discomforting, always watching and registering all movements. The vulnerability of Ashok and his encroached privacy is palpable. Balram’s hollowed look says everything as if there is a wait for an opportune time to pounce. Adarsh makes his character believable by sarcastically saying – A good servant must know his masters from end to end. From lips to anus.
The film is a consummating combination of wit, sarcasm, affluent actors and good cinematography that makes the experience of an ambitious yet cunning underdog a worth watch. Balram’s personality is a deadly concoction of emaciated physique, sharp intellect, a restless longing to rise, ambivalent emotions, weird servitude, extreme brutality and no remorse, that says – Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love – or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?
The White Tiger is exuberantly bouncy. It nowhere loses its steam and dark intent, while maintaining a consistent air of suspicious looks and intentions. All this comes through the viewpoint and experience of Balram Halwai – a man with a small belly consuming a man with a big belly.
It can be viewed on Netflix.