Towards the end of The White Tiger, Balram Halwai, the man we’ve been watching for almost two hours, tells us that there is no million-rupee game show to rescue him.
It’s a wry but obvious dig at Slumdog Millionaire, perhaps the movie most westerners will think of when they hear The White Tiger’s premise about a poor, smart boy’s aspirational journey to success in poverty-stricken Indian.
But The White Tiger is a very different movie to Slumdog Millionaire, much more conscious and scathing of the rot at the heart of what Balram (Adarsh Gourav) repeatedly, bitterly calls “the world’s greatest democracy”.
Any hope or salvation it offers is laced with a drop of arsenic, and there are certainly no Bollywood dance numbers to lift your spirits.
Which is not to say The White Tiger is a downer. It’s lively and entertaining, an almost playful story in which you’re as seduced by Balram’s ambitions and plots as he is by the gold-plated world of the wealthy. But The White Tiger is, despite its colourful visual palette, a very dark film.
That you might think The White Tiger is a different movie at the start is largely due to the appealing and intuitive performance from Gourav – and it’s only later that you realise just how clever that performance was.
The White Tiger, based on 2008 novel and Man Booker Prize winner by Aravind Adiga, explores the dehumanisation wrought by India’s social caste system, the chasm between the wealthy and the poor and the oppressive systems that ensure there are few opportunities to rise.
And it does so through a character who is 85 per cent pluck and charisma, and 15 per cent ruthlessness – those ratios are not fixed, by the way. As Balram himself tells you in voiceover, his life story is the truth about India – or, two Indias, one of light and one of darkness.
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Balram was born in darkness as a halwai, a caste of sweet makers. He lives in an impoverished town where the citizens must pay their vicious landlord a prohibitive amount of money. His large family all sleep in the same dirt-covered room and he’s pulled out of school after two years to work in the tea shop.
When the landlord and his family drive into town in their shiny, large car, all the village children run after the symbol of privilege. When Balram is older, he learns to drive and becomes a driver for the landlord’s family, specifically his youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (superstar Priyanka Chopra).
Taking pride in being a servant to such a prominent family, Balram eventually becomes a successful entrepreneur – which is where the story starts and is then told in flashbacks – but how he makes it is the damning verdict The White Tiger passes on India’s social system and corruption.
Directed and written by American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger is a searing adaptation about the suffocating traps of class, especially in a society as stratified as India. Bahrani has form in this area, having previously made 99 Homes, an excellent post-GFC story about the metaphorical cannibalism of American aspirations, and the institutions that exploited it with minimal qualms.
In The White Tiger, there are even fewer qualms, and any hope you may place in people who seem more empathetic or at least morally grey will stab you right where it hurts.
It’s a movie with more than a few surprises, a strong perspective and the courage to pull no punches.
The White Tiger is available to stream on Netflix from Friday, January 22 at 7pm AEDT
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