When Indian-Australian author Aravind Adiga wrote his 2008 novel The White Tiger, the globalism his book described was a speculated future. Now Netflix’s film adaptation of the book is arriving in a world where that globalism is a reality. A India-US co-production, directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, White Tiger features Baywatch’s Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the rare actress who’s achieved superstardom in both Indian and American media. It tells the story of poor villager Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a demure man caught in the Indian rat race of capitalism, caste, and class, as he attempts to grab his perceived destiny by working as a chauffeur for the son of a wealthy landlord. The film is full of potent human drama (largely coming from Gourav’s performance), but as an examination of the world’s intersection with modern India, it usually lands on the wrong side of inauthentic.
Right from its initial scenes, the question of “Who is this for?” feels inescapable. After a brief prologue set in 2007, depicting a New Delhi road accident involving Balram, his employer Ashok (Rajkumar Rao), and Ashok’s wife Pinky (Chopra Jonas), the film introduces its framing device, set seven years later. Balram, now a suave business owner in tech-capital Bangalore, writes an email to visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, explaining his life story, from his childhood in the small town of Laxmangarh to his attempts to escape the “chicken coop” he was born into. Baked into this narrative, where an Indian explains Indian life to a foreigner, is a never-ending exposition that feels alienating — no doubt to Indian viewers, and possibly to non-Indian ones as well, in a world more connected than in 2008. The voiceover hand-holds the audience through the basics of Hinduism, going as far as to break it down through comparisons to monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam. It orients the story’s class and caste elements by way of pithy, patronizing metaphors that might feel more at home in a children’s fable.
The drama at the film’s center is certainly intriguing, building up Balram’s loyalty to his employers until, as the film’s trailers hint, Pinky and Ashok cause that road accident, then convince Balram to take the blame. This central dilemma hits close to the heart of India’s massive class divide, momentarily reflecting several real-world cases (including that of Hindi cinema star Salman Khan) where poor drivers were forced or convinced to take the blame for the drunken actions of their rich employers. But the film’s overarching examination of Indian social strata begins and stops there, as the story is constantly pulled between opposing micro and macro forces: in an individual sense, the interactions between characters reflects the layers of modern Indianness, but the film is bound by voiceover aimed at dumbing down any further exploration.
White Tiger is at war with itself, torn between realistic exchanges between Indian characters, and a monologue addressing an audience that’s presumed to contain no one remotely familiar with this geopolitical setting. The voiceover is narrated by Balram, but in an authorial sense, it’s an outsider’s view of India, peering in without truly making an effort to understand the place or its people. It was written and directed by an American, Ramin Bahrani, whose inclusion of Western cultural imperialism is limited to a few lines of narration about the influence of “the white man” being replaced by the growing economic power of India and China. However, the film seems to have no idea what westernization actually looks like — the camera’s gaze is prominently focused on the “Indian-ness” of material objects and urban spaces, but Bahrani rarely stops to ponder how a city’s infrastructural identity might be transformed by the very American-ness Balram’s voiceover constantly references.
If there’s any authenticity to be found in the film’s story of a slowly westernizing India, it’s brought to the table by the actors. Pinky, like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, moved to New York as a child, while Ashok is an “Amreeka return,” a born-and-raised Indian back from the U.S. after a few years of work or study. Their accents alone tell a story of their relationship to the West, with Pinky sounding more consistently American, while Ashok breaks into occasional Americanizations of specific words and syllables. (Rao has never lived in the U.S., but he deftly captures what an Indian might sound like after a few years surrounded by Americans, softening the occasional “t” into a “d” sound, and loosening his vowels.)
As liberal Indians, they hope to come off as more enlightened about issues of caste and class, but their apparent awareness of these social ills is ultimately self-serving. Merely acknowledging a rotten structure does little to dismantle it, and both Rao and Chopra Jonas are unafraid to embody this ugly contradiction, of people torn between the appearance of goodness and the desire for power. Ashok’s involvement with his father’s political corruption is reluctant, but he stays involved nonetheless.
Balram, similarly, exposes unspoken elements of the modern Indian class ladder through the way he speaks. In the film’s mid-2000s timeline, his English subtly improves after he spends time around Anglophones, but his spoken English in the 2014 voiceover is more “proper” and clean-cut. Even though what he says in this narration rarely extends beyond platitudes, the way he says it denotes his proximity to his past and his total adsorption into the global capitalist machine. It’s a shame that the film barely touches on this part of his life.
For a film that sounds this authentic, both in terms of spoken accent and the film’s mid-2000s American hip-hop soundtrack — which represented a major cultural shift in what New Delhi sounded like by night at that time — it’s a shame that this authenticity doesn’t extend to what the film tries to be “about” in an overarching sense. Its politics are half-baked at best, going as far as to include an analogue for Indian leader Mayawati, a woman from the oft-oppressed Bahujan caste. But her fictitious equivalent, dubbed “The Great Socialist,” is used only as a stand-in for the social ill of political corruption in the broadest possible strokes. Neither this character, nor the film, seem to have any grounding in anything resembling real Indian politics, or the issues of inequality constantly referenced in Balram’s voiceover. They’re more of a background hum than a central dramatic focus; politically, The White Tiger is more Joker than Parasite.
Adarsh Gourav, however, shines as Balram, a man whose surname denotes his lot in life: “Halwai” suggests a maker of halwa, or Indian sweets. Conditioned to serve by the caste and class structures he was born into, Balram oscillates between groveling in front of his employers, and being ruthless in front of his peers, whose throats he isn’t afraid to step on to get ahead. Gourav captures both the wide-eyed, pseudo-romantic fascination with which Balram gazes upon society’s upper echelons, and the deep betrayal he feels when their acceptance turns out to be conditional. It’s a subdued performance with occasional flourishes of anger and frustration, and one so unexpectedly powerful that the film’s greater flaws often fall by the wayside whenever Bahrani stops to focus on Gourav’s face.
The White Tiger certainly could have done away with its framing device entirely, or cut out its voiceover in favor of letting Gourav further explore the character’s interiority. The pockets of human drama, when the characters speak to one another behind closed doors, makes the film worth watching, even if the moments the film speaks to the audience feel frustrating and insincere.
The White Tiger is now streaming on Netflix.