Economic crisis. Sweeping statements about a country and its culture, polarized by income inequality. An unreliable, bootstrapping narrator. Thankfully, no, it’s not Hillbilly Elegy. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s bestseller, was a riveting satire when it dropped towards the tail end of the 2008 financial crisis—and a modern look at India with far more bite than the Dickensian Slumdog Millionaire, which came out a month later. White Tiger wasn’t perfect, but it was gripping and angry and vigorous. In its attempt to bring the book to the screen, writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s Netflix adaptation of The White Tiger has declawed its satire and diluted its drama.
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a second son of a rural rickshaw puller, is a self-loathing smooth talker. His ambition is only outweighed by his certainty that he’s better and smarter than those around him. He’s going to leave his village. He ingratiates himself with the village landlord, becoming the personal driver for his son—Ashok (Rajkummar Rao)—who’s the kind of rich guy that tells his servant that “Oh, no, it’s ok, I can do that perfectly fine myself!” but still, y’know, has a servant. Ashok’s wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), is similarly representative of this ritzy rule-breaking: She’s vocal, touchy (a chiropractor) and—worst of all—American. Well, she lived in America, and that’s almost as bad.
These two exist almost purely as objects for Balram to ogle. And it’s not just Pinky’s low-cut tops: Gourav plays up Balram’s lustful relationship to Ashok, with gazes of longing transcending looks and wealth into a Single Indian Male situation. There are a few moments where the sexual tension threatens to blur all these lines, but mostly Balram’s scheming desire boils under the surface while he smiles and nods and suffers their family’s master-servant condescension. We know that Balram makes it big—and does so by breaking the law—because Balram himself tells us at the beginning of the story.
Bahrani keeps the framing device from the book, which sees a fancy playboy Balram sending an email to the Chinese Premier. Adiga milked this particular set-up for dark comedy, tongue-in-cheek suspense and some “you and me against the world” stuff tying the “yellow man” and “brown man” together. Bahrani, known for his string of small indie fest faves, parted from Amir Naderi (co-writer on his last two films) to adapt this one himself and sticks far too closely to his source in this case. While it fulfills a bit of purpose, showing Balram’s penchant for self-aggrandizing, nearly every line of the copious voiceover makes the movie less effective.
Bahrani’s a confident and effective enough visual storyteller (especially as it comes to montaging the menial tasks of servitude or showing the childlike awe with which Balram experiences the high-rises of Delhi) not to rely on Adiga’s playfully wordy source. He can be as realistic as documentary or as expressive as a Spike Lee direct address, and the constant stream of commentary undermines it all—especially the development and tension between the characters. We already get that Balram was a servant, then something illegal happened (I wonder what?) which led to Balram becoming rich. That’s enough. Everything else is just pounding us over the head and contributing to the film’s already lopsided pacing and telegraphed tragedy.
The worst on-the-nose culprits are spelled-out conversations against corruption, manifested as a profane political amalgamation known as The Great Socialist, and the caste system—usually delivered ham-handedly by Chopra-Jonas’ Pinky, who’s decently physical in her role but only operates at two degrees: Jet engine or stale bread. Rao, who’s simply got a better character, gets some more intimate moments that let him play Ashok as a suitably wimpy neoliberal. They water down the film’s critical potency with their simplicity and their directness.
The main reason things hang together, aside from the solid camerawork, is a decently weasley performance from Gourav, who also finds moments of childishness—arms swung behind his back during a happy jog, a furious pout when teased by other drivers—to hint at Balram’s dark complexity. But then he’ll go and do something ridiculous, like listening outside the door as Ashok and Pinky have sex—already creepy—then turning to the camera while making what can only be described as a Muttley Face. Corny.
This is partially where the movie’s main thrust falters. It’s attempting to be a pseudo-American Psycho satire, with its central character shown to be a product of capitalism’s corruption on the other end of the tax brackets. From Balram’s two inescapable phrases—comparing India to a rooster coop and saying that the country has two sides, the Light and the Darkness—is the idea that monsters spring into the light, created by their forced residence in the dark. Only the meanest, most aggressive rooster flies the coop. It’s an “eat the rich” ethos warped by the system that made him hungry in the first place; it’s the kind of plot ripe for misunderstanding by a middle class Republican. The satire here—that the light actually holds all the monsters and those getting out of the dark only do so by playing their monstrous game—falters with some of its late and weirdly handled discussion of a servant’s duties, place and love. Add this to The White Tiger’s constant need to make grand general statements about India on top of its plotting (Light! Dark! Castes! Religion! Politics! The West!) and dialogue that wouldn’t know subtext from a submachine gun, and every second scene detracts from a narrative that already implies much more subtle commentary. In fact, one of the film’s most cunning elements is its rap-filled soundtrack, its bars full of conspicuous consumption, that reflects Balram’s similarly complex, cutthroat rags-to-riches mindset.
Though the filmmaking is perfectly competent and sometimes engaging, these moments where things click in a way that doesn’t feel like a teacher tap-tap-tapping on a chalkboard’s spelled-out “themes” are rare. It’s a muddled and messy movie, colorfully congested with ideas that often seem contradictory. The White Tiger is certainly smarter and better-made than its straight-faced bootstrapping streaming service compatriot Hillbilly Elegy, showing that the simplest way to get out from under a system that’s oppressing you is to embrace its worst qualities and become a single-minded sociopath, but it remains ultimately unfulfilling as a satire and a drama that simultaneously overexplains itself and never gets mean enough.
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writer: Ramin Bahrani, Aravind Adiga (book)
Starring: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Release Date: January 8, 2021 (theaters); January 22, 2021 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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