White Tiger (2021) reviewed

Oscars weekend is here, and today I’ll review one of the nominees. The White Tiger is up for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie is derived from the Aravind Adiga novel. While the book was released in 2008, the film version only premiered on Netflix this past January. At the time, it was one of the top films on the streaming service. A gritty portrait of class struggles, poverty, and globalisation, the production uses an all-Indian cast. Moreover, Tiger was shot on location in Delhi. Newcomer Adarsh Gourav spearheads the ensemble, which also includes some Bollywood stars.

Balram

Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwai, who leads a hand-to-mouth existence in Laxmangarh. In spite of his family’s destitution, Balram is a voracious reader. In school, he is leaps and bounds better than his classmates, prompting a visiting scout to offer him a scholarship in Delhi. The same guy labels him ‘a white tiger.’ However, when his pops is unable to pay back the village elder, Balram’s grandma forces him to work in the local tea stall. As a result, he never steps foot in the classroom again.

Balram dreams of working for Ashok, son of the village landlord. The latter has returned from the US together with Pinky, his Americanised wifey. The spouse was a native New Yorker from Jackson Heights. Balram’s grandmother agrees to cover his driving lessons, with a share in his salary. The protagonist is hired as the family’s second driver but is also mistreated. The threat of a reprisal against his brethren is enough to keep him honest. Ashok and Pinky wish to move to Delhi, where they will buy government officials to give them tax breaks. Balram, who wants only to work for the couple, exposes the main driver’s creed. After the latter is sent packing, Balram joins the pair to Delhi. The westernised twosome clash with Ashok’s family.

Cultural capital

As opposed to other family members, the couple treat Balram well but still see him as a lackey. They take it as their duty to enlighten Balram. Throughout the runtime, Balram is often juxtaposed with his wealthier patrons. While the lead has street smarts, his patrons have cultural capital. It’s no secret that the consequence of an education is foregrounded. One’s learning becomes crucial in navigating (and surviving) India. In the ensuing scenes, Ashok is made accountable for the failings of his bosses. The family treats him like an outsider, belittling him even when he’s there. He loses faith in his bosses. Pinky eventually leaves her hubby for the States, which leaves Balram to steady his boss. His grandmother follows through on her promise and Balram squirms to avoid the arranged marriage. Furthermore, grandma sends him one of his younger nephews to learn the ropes from him.

Disillusioned

Balram starts going rogue, using Ashok’s car as a taxi and siphoning gas. He learns of a particularly big shipment that his patron will deliver. He then plots to murder Ashok, steal the money, and use it for good. This is the only way to rise above and roar like a tiger. He does all three and relocates together with his mentee to Bangalore, then the IT hub of the subcontinent. He bribes the police and starts his own lucrative taxi business. He treats his employees with care and does not point fingers in their failings. He reveals that he is now Ashok Sharma.

The making of Tiger

I haven’t read the novel, but I gathered that the movie is faithful to the book. American director Ramin Bahrani also wrote the screenplay. The helmer considered updating the plot to more recent times but gave up the idea since Tiger is a period film. While the script was initially 200 pages long, he managed to winnow it down. Instead of Balram posting on social media, he wrote emails instead. Bahrani considered other more familiar faces for the lead role but thought that the star should be both Indian and obscure. This would tie in nicely with the character’s underdog tag. Bahrani scoured far and wide in India, spending months and trekking through Adiga’s universe. He encountered hordes of faces, before sighting Gourav. The latter repaid the director’s confidence by preparing diligently for the role. Apparently, Gourav blew the filmmaker away during the audition.

The critics’ village

Tiger was released on 22 January of this year on Netflix. According to the latter, approximately 27 million households streamed the movie in its first month. The production was in the top 10 of 64 various countries. The film was met with universal acclaim, citing that it was ‘well-acted, beautifully made…a grimly compelling drama.’ In particular, pundits praised the efforts of the lead and Priyanka Chopra (Pinky). The latter was cited as ‘impressive’ and ‘marvellous.’ The picture has been compared to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The general view though from commentators is that this takes Slumdog up a notch, with its black comedy and savage reparation.

Riveting watch

The movie clocks in at 125 minutes, which is enough to keep you hooked. You couldn’t blame people for pitting it against Slumdog. Afterall, it’s Oscar season and the latter, with eight statuettes, set the bar for Indian-themed flicks. However, I like to contrast it to The Namesake, partly since I’ve read the author, Lahiri, recently. The two are not alike. While Namesake is a wistful drama, Tiger is a brutal correction of caste troubles. The former treads the tricky paths of the West/East divide. While there is some overlap, the latter remains an allegory on progress and seizing the day. The former has veteran actors; a newbie headlines the latter. However, both movies have rated well, and leave you learning more about Indian culture. How Tiger fares on Monday afternoon (Sydney time) would be interesting.

Rating: 4.5/5

Bangalore
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