The White Tiger: A razor-sharp, gripping thriller
James R | On 22, Jan 2021
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra
Watch The White Tiger online in the UK: Netflix UK
In 2015, Ramin Bahrani dissected the US housing crisis with a sharp scalpel. His drama 99 Homes teased out the human drama at the heart of a property market hit by foreclosures and recession. Now, he returns to our screens with another sharp-edged examination of society – this time, a savage satire of modern India and capitalism that bares its teeth with an entertaining grin.
Adapted by Bahrani from Arvind Adiga’s novel of the same name, The White Tiger follows Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a young man from a small village who climbs his way up through the economy to become a big deal. He does so by taking on the role of a driver and assistant to the son of a local landlord, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who swans into the frame with his New Yorker wife Pinky (an excellent Priyanka Chopra) on his arm. They are caught up in their own desires and needs, at once self-centred and sultry with an alluringly garish vibe.
Balram fully enters into the role of their dogsbody, carrying out his duties with a sycophantic, obsequious obedience. They’re like his family, he insists, but even feminist Pinky realises that such faux-devotion to his employer may not be sincere, and Bahrani’s script teases apart the complexities of that dynamic with mesmerising nuance. The more this outwardly progressive couple insist he’s their equal, the clearer it becomes that this isn’t really the case – and the more he insists they’re his superiors, the clearer it becomes that he has cut-throat ambitions to join them at the top of the ladder.
Adarsh Gourav is nothing less than magnetic in the lead, balancing an inherent reflex to be genial and deferential with a shark-like knack for psychologically playing with others. We watch him as he sympathises and identifies with the have-nots in what he now calls India’s two-caste system (those with everything versus those with nothing), while also feels the need to break free from the coop of that system and become something more. Slumdog Millionaire, this ain’t.
But what it does share with Danny Boyle’s fairytale fable is a gripping momentum – this thoughtful study of social rebellion, moral flexibility and self-justified self-determination is wrapped up in a gloriously propulsive thriller, one that’s driven forward by Balram’s visceral sense of purpose. “White people are on the way out,” he asserts in his vision of the future, and while we may not entirely trust this smiling narrator throughout his twisting journey, there’s no doubt that he’s carved out a destiny of his own making.
The White Tiger is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.