The White Tiger: Predator/Prey, by David Bax
The White Tiger is the cheekiest movie of director Ramin Bahrani’s career. It even has one of those in media res, freeze frame, “Yup, that’s me, you’re probably wondering…” type of openings. But there’s a dark side to the playfulness. That freeze frame, for one, happens at a moment that would better be described as “stomach churning” than “wacky.” And this story of an ethically flexible social climber has more in common with Scorsese than with The Emperor’s New Groove.
After that shocking first scene reaches its abrupt halt, we are officially introduced to Balram (Adarsh Gourav) as a successful, self-made entrepreneur in Bangalore in 2010. From there, Balram relates to us the story of how he went from being a low-caste sweets-maker in the “dark half” of India to his current state of enviable material wealth and independence.
Last decade, Bahrani made two terrific films about the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in America, 2012’s At Any Price and 2014’s 99 Homes. The White Tiger is intentionally noncommittal about exactly when its main narrative takes place (sometime before 2010, obviously) but it uses another period of economic transition–India’s tech and outsourcing boom–to once again illustrate the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.
Bahrani’s screenplay (adapted from Avarind Adiga’s 2008 novel) endeavors to keep us mindful of Balram’s humanity–obscured first by his treatment at the hands of the wealthy and then by the things he does to become one of them–by accompanying nearly every scene with his voiceover narration. There are times when this is indeed illuminating (more on that later) but a lot of it is also really corny, either because it’s overheated (“The city knew I was burning and it burned with me”) or because of its delusions of profundity (“Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love or love them behind a facade of loathing?”).
That latter mode is indicative of The White Tiger‘s less than cinematic tendency to favor telling the viewer things over showing them to us. It’s mildly entertaining to hear Balram specifically denigrate the capitalist fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire but when he’s already compared most of the country to roosters in a coop, happily waiting to be slaughtered and, on two separate occasions, scoffed at India’s boasts of being the “world’s largest democracy,” it all becomes repetitive. Bahrani achieves more in what he depicts without comment, like the times and places Balram’s bosses (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra) do and don’t make physical contact with him and Balram’s reactions to those instances.
That kind of treatment is likely to make you feel sorry for Balram at times; it’s meant to. But what redeems The White Tiger is its ultimate refusal to redeem its protagonist. The self-serving remorse in his voiceover rings hollow; it’s easy to feel sorry for cheating after you’ve already won. Bahrani knows that Balram wants us to see him as an Oliver Twist but recognizes that he’s actually a Jordan Belfort, the exact kind of sociopath our economic systems seem designed to reward.