It’s safe to say that Netflix films can be a bit hit or miss. For every Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story or Remi Weekes’ His House, you get unsatisfactory duds like Outside the Wire or Extraction (minus the brilliant one-take shot). Thankfully, The White Tiger belongs in the echelons of the ‘hit’ category. And typical of the big-budgeted studio, there’s no shortage of star power when the film can boast the involvement of Ava DuVernay (Executive Producer), Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Executive Producer and Co-Star) and Director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, Fahrenheit 451).
Based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Aravind Adiga, there’s always a natural apprehension when it comes to adaptations. Naturally, it boils down to whether it captures the spirit of the novel without short-changing its intentions. Personally, I’ve not read the book, and therefore, I can’t make those active comparisons. But based on this evidence, it’s enough to feel invested to add it to my Amazon Wishlist order.
As introductions go, it makes an immediate and energetic impact. The familiar beats of Panjabi MCs ‘Mundian to Bach Ke’ blasts up the speakers as a car swerve dangerously in the road as it weaves in-between traffic. Cut to interior shots of servant Balram (Adarsh Gourav), nervously watching from the backseat his masters Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) driving recklessly behind the wheel. And as you can probably guess from this very loose outline, there’s no happy ending from this.
From the outset, the comparisons between The White Tiger and Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite are notable. Both films documenting the dividing lifestyles between the rich and the poor, societal classism that separates an entire nation between the affluent ‘haves’ and the poverty slums of the ‘have nots’. Parasite brilliantly brings that to the forefront with its landscape rock (suseok in Korean), the metaphor cornerstone of weight and burden that’s carried around to showcase the pressures of inequality. The White Tiger doesn’t reach those Bong Joon-Ho levels of poetry in its symbolism but uses its analogy to paint a caste society trapped in the ‘Rooster Coup’, where thousands are desperate to escape the clutches of society’s hand before it wields its deadly axe.
But both films are essentially a cinematic response to the rigged system, where its leading characters try to climb up the socio-economic barriers for a better way of life. These are characters who, through their natural wit and cunning demeanour, take advantage to navigate the system. But as both films document, they’re not immune – there’s always a significant cloud and reminder of ‘your place’ in the world, where there is one rule for the ruling class and another (and more expendable) rule for the poor. And when a film can playfully dig at Slumdog Millionaire, The White Tiger makes a firm stance on what type of film it chooses to be, which only adds to the enjoyment of the film.
Stylistically, it has fun with that dynamic, occasionally breaking the fourth wall with framed shots and close-ups, the satirical humour in cultural practices and the spiritualism of white tigers. In depicting the master/servant relationship, Bahrani’s direction is always a subtle reminder between the extremes, making comparative acknowledgements between the darkness and the light where the differing realities are etched into every frame. And through Gourav’s transcendent performance, you have a captivating lead who’s able to navigate those shifting hurdles, embracing the film’s ‘rags to riches’ philosophy with an ode to Scorsese’s ‘wiseguy’ narration but deeply attuned to the cultural diaspora that’s unapologetically Indian.
It’s demonstrated in one brilliant scene where the loving weight of becoming the ‘number one servant’ comes at a cost. Through watering eyes, a ticking time bomb of repressed emotions and smiles is lit, setting the course of his eventual transformation. Gourav’s anti-heroism is laced with an empathetic core where his hospitality is frequently disrespected by those who don’t value his worth. He becomes a rebellious response to the trickle-down effects of societal inequality and cultural expectations that are ultimately beset by tragedy and a lack of moral accountability.
While its predictable conclusion is inevitable, it loses some momentum in resolving its affairs. The layered intricacy as its jumps routinely between Balram’s past of servitude and his entrepreneurial present might feel too abrupt and rushed, by the time it reaches its defiant end. Therefore, it builds a natural curiosity in wondering the fate or even repercussions of some of the characters that Balram meets along the way.
But that’s just a minor issue, because the art of the reinvention in modern India is potently clear. Balram’s story is told with an engaging and patient verve that never breaks its stride. And already, it lays down a significant marker to be one of this year’s most entertaining films.
The White Tiger is now available on Netflix worldwide.