- First Published: on East Mojo
- Platform: Netflix
- Release Date: 22/01/2021
- Writer: Aravind Adiga (book), Ramin Bahrani (screenplay)
- Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra, Mahesh Manjrekar, Swaroop Sampat, Vijay Maurya
- Director: Ramin Bahrani
The cardinal sin of raising expectations and falling short of it
Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room. Does The White Tiger show India and Indians in a bad light? Yes, it does. Some of the very first words out of the protagonist Balram Halwai’s mouth in the film reads, “our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transport, sense of hygiene, punctuality or courtesy, does have entrepreneurs”. Even a 5-year old kid would have enough reasons to lambast the above claims that just goes on to show the lack of knowledge and understanding of the writers [Aravind Adiga (book), Ramin Bahrani (screenplay)] about the country as a whole. Having said that, there are still certain places in India where the above words may hold true and in that aspect, the writers could have just played around with the words and made the protagonist refer to his own existence rather than making a generalized statement about the entire country.
This manner of seeing India through a lens that accentuates its deficiencies but almost always hides all that is good and laudable about it is the biggest problem with the source material and it plagues the film at every stage. For someone like me who has spent his entire life in the country and has had the good fortunes of traveling around it extensively, the film’s violent urge to present only things bad about India quickly turns into a vision of the country that is ill-advised, biased and outright stupid. This aspect of the material denies the film a lot of brownie points that it would have easily garnered had the proceedings, setting and people been a tad bit closer to reality. However, just to keep a level head about the film and to judge it for nothing else but the story it sets out to tell and its cinematic prowess, I tried to associate with the world weaved around the protagonist and for the runtime of the film took it to be the only world in existence.
Balram Halwai grew up in a dirt poor village of Laxmangarh where he lost his father and his chance of a good life at an early age. He grows up working in a tea stall with his elder brother and dreams of a better life. He watches the landlord of the village, year after year, looting the villagers and growing in stature and clout. With time his hatred for the man, in a strange way, turns into respect and a sense of submission to his all-pervading power over their existence. He understands his own psyche and the fact that he is submitting to his own oppressors for no rhyme or reason but is unable to stop himself from submitting to the men as it has been engraved in his DNA through years of oppression, unquestionable loyalty, and fear of the stick. He does compare himself to the roosters in a coop waiting patiently to be decapitated and shredded for meat but never does anything about escaping that fate.
His fortunes change when he gets an opportunity to work for the youngest son of the landlord in Delhi. His arrival in Delhi not only opens up his eyes to the world around him but also makes him grow increasingly impatient and angry. The disdain with which the older landlord and his son, referred to as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya) treat him makes him despise them even more. Interestingly he receives what can be called a semblance of gratitude and respect from the younger landlord, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and his NRI wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). Their behavior towards him creates further conflicts in Balram’s mind as they love him in one moment and despise him in another. This creates such turmoil within Balram that in his confusion and desperation he does something that changes his life forever.
Ramin Bahrani builds up the drama beautifully and I was immediately intrigued by the protagonist who I wanted to come out victorious after all the dust settled in. Balram Halwai will definitely remind most viewers of someone or the other that they know off and will also point out certain inherent flaws in the manner in which a large chunk of the population of this country reacts to the way their life is and could be if they wanted it to be in a certain way.
Adarsh Gourav is fascinating as Balram. He has such a transfixing face and he emotes so well in the film that it is hard to take off one’s eyes from his essay. Even in scenes that he shares with Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao he is able to overshadow the seasoned and charismatic actors and retain the viewer’s interest and intrigue for his character. His mannerisms, behavior around his bosses, and his inner turmoil are brought out so well that within moments of his introduction, I completely forgot that I was watching a performance. I have to add that it is because of Gourav’s stupendous performance that the story and screenplay of The White Tiger were elevated a few notches.
Rajkummar Rao is an ever-dependable actor and here too he is at the top of his game. He starts off as someone who is not too happy about how his father and elder brother run their business and treats Balram but as the story progresses, we see him metamorph into someone just as ruthless and detached from anything and anyone lower than his socio-economical standards as the Stork and the Mongoose. I especially enjoyed him in scenes where he suddenly snaps on Balram after being rather cozy and appreciative of him in an earlier scene. It just adds a lot to the drama and explains what fuels Balram’s hatred for his masters.
Priyanka Chopra as Pinky is probably the only positive character in the film. She brings to the screen her trademark charm and likeability but in certain scenes, her relentless efforts to pass off as more American than Indian in mannerisms, accent, and hand gestures make a mockery of the character that she is playing. It is not so much about her as it is about the characters that we remember her playing and the avatar that we are witnessing herein currently that creates a sense of comedy that is unmissable. Swaroop Sampat has just two scenes and she is like a breath of fresh air in these two scenes. I loved her gusto. Nalneesh Neel as Vitiligo is uproarious in his over the top essay that I believe will be lapped up by the younger generation.
My issues with the film are not so much in the execution as it is with the story itself. Arvind Adiga’s story taps out in the end without leaving much of an impact or extracting any substantial tension. The film is plagued by the very same issues. For someone who hasn’t read the book and has no idea of the story will be expecting an intriguing and rollicking finale from how the story progresses but the film ends abruptly without anything remarkable or shocking happening. That for me affected the final release of the tension that the screenplay promised through the course of its runtime and underplayed the expectations from it. There isn’t a bigger sin in cinema than falling short of the expectations raised by your own screenplay and The White Tiger is guilty of it.
Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)