The White Tiger Netflix Movie review: Stirring adaptation that falls short of greatness
Ramin Bahrani directs a literal adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s incendiary novel
Balram Halwai, offered a mattress, says he’d rather sleep on the cold, hard floor. He looks up excitedly and acknowledges the existence of a roof — as though to expect any more would be a sin. Balram is a driver, raised and reared for the straight road. Yet, he isn’t willing to go down that way. “Diversifying, sir?” he asks his employer, Mr Ashok, with a slight lilt. Balram, in his own quiet way, is diversifying too.
And so we get the protagonist of The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel. In both the film and the book, Balram calls himself ‘a pervert, a freak of nature’ (he’s a freak of cinema too — an underdog hero who isn’t a rapper or sports protégé or striking millworker). When he gets hired as a chauffeur to a wealthy couple, beginning in Dhanbad but later joining them in Delhi, Balram is told he’s climbing up in life. He believes so too — what more could the son of a lower-caste rickshaw-puller want? The film is about him coming to violent grips with that question.
Cast: Adarsh Gaurav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra, Vijay Maurya
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Streaming on Netflix
Balram is played by Adarsh Gaurav, a lithe performer with big, bulging, vibrant eyes. His employers, Mr Ashok and Pinky Madam, are played by Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra. The casting is bound to throw off native viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the plot. It’s not just Priyanka’s presence in a tertiary role that’s distracting but also Rajkummar’s — an actor best known for playing nimble outsiders in middle-of-the-road comedies. There’s also the matter of their accents, which, though narratively justified — Ashok and Pinky have just returned from America — took me at least an hour’s time to get used to (Rajkummar invoking ‘42nd Street’ made me shrink).
The disconnect isn’t lost on Balram when he’s inducted into his masters’ lives. “He’s half-baked,” concludes Ashok, turning to his wife and explaining why boys like him are the ‘untapped market’ of India. Balram knows he’s been spoken down to, yet he isn’t deterred. A few scenes later, he’s driving them around and taking the mickey out of their gullible ways. The servant has played the master.
Balram isn’t a sympathetic figure in the book, but you feel for him anyway. His fuming rage — against Ashok, against Delhi, against the village landlords and and his own bloodsucking dadi — was dealt with a sharpness I found missing in the film. Ramin (to whom Aravind’s novel is dedicated) opts for a literal adaptation, quoting directly and faithfully from his source and not delving deeper into scenes. He retains the original framing device — Balram writing a letter to the Chinese Premier, telling him of his entrepreneurial life — but is also forced to jack up the pace, which dilutes the narration. I missed the slow uncoiling of Balram’s mind, all those late-night musings and diversions Aravind packed into the page.
That’s not to say the film isn't stirring or visually inventive. There’s a memorable shot of Balram staring up at the sky, dwarfed by rising towers. The scene where Ashok visits him in his dingy one-room is played word-for-word, except they also end up singing. Their relationship isn’t diluted or freed of its sexual charge (Balram refers to Ashok as ‘my ex’ in a late scene). Adarsh and Rajkummar create a complex chemistry, and the film gains from keeping its focus firmly trained on them.
Ramin, an American director of Iranian descent, fails to capture Delhi as strikingly as Aravind did in his book. We are shown the sights and sounds — from Paharganj to Connaught Place — but they fail to evoke the heat and grime of the place. The initial village portions are wrapped up in fifteen minutes, while there’s hardly any Dhanbad and a functional Bangalore. There are minor evasions — a softening of religion and caste, names of political parties changed — but nothing that impedes the main plot.
Midway through The White Tiger, I realised what the film was lacking. A tense Balram goes upstairs to check on his grieving master. As he gingerly opens the door, a scene from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro plays on TV. Ramin might be paying tribute to his favorite Indian satire here, but the contrast is hugely revealing. Kundan Shah’s film hasn’t lost its bite in almost forty years, precisely because it couched its anger in humorous tones. The White Tiger is all too serious — and less effective for it.