tv & movies

‘The White Tiger’ movie review: A darkly satirical, thrilling ride

Based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning eponymous novel, this is a gripping, funny and heart-breaking film

Haven’t we all taken Ramu Kaka from our many Hindi films for granted? We were conditioned to think it was okay for Ramlaal (Satyen Kappu) to sit at Thakur’s (Sanjeev Kumar) feet in Sholay. Movies such as Bawarchi and Nauker extol the virtues of serving one’s master—they also serve who stand and wait or work themselves to the bone. When Kaaliya tells Gabbar, “Sarkar, maine aapka namak khaya hai,” (I have eaten your salt), it is the ultimate stamp of loyalty — for there is no worse perfidy than namak harami.

So through the ages, Ramu Kaka has served his Sarkar, treated as one of the family but not quite. The family in the big house blithely goes about their business, dispensing casual cruelty and petty kindnesses without giving a thought to Ramu Kaka’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. What if, however, they were served by a white tiger, a rare, once-in-a-lifetime beast like Balram Halwai? Would the wordless, hard-working elves develop fangs and claws like the Kim family in Parasite?

Based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize winning eponymous novel, The White Tiger tells Balram’s story as he drags himself out of poverty and the shackles of caste to become a successful entrepreneur. Narrated by Balram in the form of a letter to the visiting Chinese Premiere, The White Tiger details Balram’s wretched life of poverty in an unnamed village close to Dhanbad, his rickshaw puller father dying of tuberculosis, and being pulled out of school, despite being a bright student, to work in a tea stall to pay off debts.

The White Tiger

  • Director: Ramin Bahrani
  • Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Mahesh Manjrekar, Swaroop Sampat, Vijay Maurya, Nalneesh Neel
  • Duration: 125 minutes
  • Story line: A man improves his lot in life the only way he can

Balram is not one to accept the cards life has dealt him and when he learns that the rich family in Dhanbad has need for a driver for their America-returned son, Ashok, he learns driving. He gets the job and quickly makes himself indispensable. Like all good servants, Balram goes above and beyond the call of duty but is inevitably thrown under the bus at the first sign of trouble.

The White Tiger maintains the darkly satirical tone of the novel. Director Ramin Bahrani, who has also written the screenplay, mostly avoids the clichés of exotic India. He has a deft, light hand at the wheel, even while ruthlessly laying bare the many hypocrisies that make up modern India from the outright brutality of Ashok’s father (Mahesh Manjrekar) and brother (Vijay Maurya) to the well-meaning but ineffectual kindnesses of Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas).

For a film dealing with heavy-duty themes of corruption, caste, globalisation and entrepreneurship, The White Tiger is engaging and moves quickly. The cast and writing (“Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?”) are excellent. Adarsh Gourav as Balram is a revelation in his first lead role—switching from canny to caring, hurt to anger and despair to optimism in a blink of an eye. Manjrekar brings all his slimy evil as the wicked patriarch and Swaroop Sampat is all velvet steel as the soft-spoken, foul-mouthed politician.

When Balram says, “Don’t for a second think there is a million-rupee game show you can win to get out,” you are reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which seems to be The White Tiger’s spiritual sibling with its echoes of 70s Hindi films. A lovely looking, gripping, funny and heart-breaking film, we are drawn into Balram’s wildly colourful world from the get-go. And what a thrilling ride this heroic driver takes us on!

The White Tiger is currently streaming on Netflix


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