Balram (Adarsh Gourav) considers himself a rare kind of man. He has been born into poverty in a low caste, but he manages to hustle his way into a position as driver to a rich entrepreneur.
The White Tiger is about social mobility. It’s about the oppressive caste system that protects a ruling class whilst trapping the majority of people into a cycle of debt and servitude. What’s fascinating is the insight into how family forms a part of this trap in this society. Elders teach the young to repeat the same mistakes and jealousy guard any opportunities to escape. Corruption is rife and the government is indifferent.
However this is not a straightforward story of a plucky hero overcoming oppression. In many ways Balram is deeply unsympathetic. Although his situation is tragic and relatable he is often cruel and judgemental. He is a product of his environment and even though he is analytical and self aware, he is am exponent of it. He is unpredictable and exciting, even in his obsequiousness. Adarsh Gourav is fantastic in this role. He is hugely expressive and capable of sinister guile and affecting humanity.
The film features constant narration from our hero and although it is charmingly delivered by Gourav and is innovatively used to further explore his character and the nature of his constant servitude to tragic and comedic effect. However it is also overbearing, robbing any scene of its ambiguity. I wonder how these scenes might play without the running commentary explaining what it all means. In such a stylistic film, it is a shame to have so much spelled out for us.
The White Tiger is similar to Parasite in that it portrays the ruthless actions needed to escape . It also portrays the chasm of difference between the rich and the working poor. The sheer distance of experience and upbringing means that communication between these characters is impossible. A strict code of etiquette prevents any of these lines being overstepped. Often they are quite literally not speaking the same language.
Director Ramin Bahrani sets all of this is set against a beautiful and terrible portrayal of india. The sweeping landscapes of rural villages and the sprawling city of Delhi with its palaces and skyscrapers. Like Parasite we experience the geography of this poverty as we climb down from the elevated, gold-trimmed apartments to the cold and dark basements where the servants dwell in abandoned garages. Even the streets transform from abandoned highways to hot dirt roads, brimming with life.
The White Tiger is at times a very humourous satire of the Indian caste system and at times a terrifying insight into a process that robs people of their identity and decency. It’s an exciting and inventive story of a young man’s decent into desperation and fury at the chains that bind him. It could do with being a little more enigmatic but is undeniably engrossing.