The prospects for Balram (Adarsh Gourav) are manifestly bleak. In his rural hometown of Laxmangarh the trappings of the Indian caste system have condemned generations to exploitation at the hands of despotic landlords — landlords who take a hefty percentage of Balram’s family’s profits from their ramshackle tea shop. Despite being identified as one of the village’s brightest, Balram’s chances of winning a scholarship to one of the top schools in Delhi is snatched away from him when his father falls ill with tuberculosis and dies, forcing him to take on his duties at the tea shop. Unfortunately, having been identified as a white tiger — an animal that comes along just once in a generation — Balram is unable to slake his hunger for a dazzling and different future to the destitution, incivility and arranged marriage that lay ahead of him, and thus he starts sniffing around the congenital benefactors of his oppressed people (those mean-spirited and wealthy landlords) for an opportunity. To become a servant.
Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger is not to be discounted as another rags-to-riches fairy tale, where the protagonist breaks down walls and punches through ceilings with a ferocious equilibrium of determination, raw talent and fortune — no, this is a much darker and corrupted vision of entrepreneurship, where man must work against his humanity and cultural ideology to succeed. As the shackles of class distinction are unbreakable, Balrum must saw off his arms to rid himself of their erroneous clink, to become the slick entrepreneurial figure who recounts his narrative from the metropolitan glare of his plush office.
Balrum soon becomes the favorite servant of the landlord’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who having had a taste of westernization and liberality whilst attending college in the States finds himself disgusted by the dehumanizing and humiliating treatment which Balrum is subjected to by his family: beatings, bullying and exploitation are recurring themes throughout his tenure as a servant. These sentiments of disgust are shared by Ashok’s outspoken American-Indian wife, Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra), who cannot wrap her head around Balrum’s slavish nature in the face of continuous mortification, if anything, Balram’s mechanical smiling and bootlicking politeness becomes a source of irritation, frustration. . . pity. For Pinky, Balrum’s existence clashes with her ingrained American individualism, a national ideology which had allowed her to attend college and swim in similar circles as Ashok, despite her parents being mere shopkeepers.
But behind the unwavering propriety, Balrum is secretly and meticulously learning from his masters. He is immersing himself in a world alien to the slums of Laxmangarh; a world where there is plumbing, sanitation and medical facilities; a society where people care about their appearance, brush their hair and teeth; where people get what they want, when they want just by chucking rucksacks of money at influential politicians or institutions; a world being overtaken by mass communication and advanced technology. For yes, inequality permeates and erodes all societies, but in developing countries the inequalities are stark and entrenched. For example, an Indian in the higher caste probably has more in common with a yokel from a remote Alpine village than what they do with the untouchables in the lower echelons of the caste structure.
Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes and Fahrenheit 451) zeroes in, examines and satirizes the corruption, violence and exploitation which is bred within the caste system, whilst dropping his audience into the ever-fluctuating, kaleidoscopic metropolis of Delhi. At some points the narrative plays out like a slow-burn, psychological thriller in a similar vein to Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, as Balram starts unravelling like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. He starts hallucinating and manically snarling into mirrors as if he’s transforming into the white tiger which consumes his imagination as the film hurtles towards its jarring crescendo. At other times, it’s a seering social commentary complimented by interspersed abstract and comedic vignettes. Bahrani does a pretty impressive juggling act with the amalgam of tones, but he struggles to evoke much of a response in the soul. This is not a glaring issue because the film is effortlessly entertaining and profoundly interesting. Bahrani submerges you into an alien culture, makes you understand it, spite it and long for its destruction. Impressive.