“The White Tiger,” a prizewinning 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga, has been turned into a ferocious Netflix original by Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian-American filmmaker whose dramas of the US underclass — including “Goodbye Solo” (2008) and “99 Homes” (2015) — have readied him for this swirling, scalding portrait of India’s class war.
It’s the coming-of-age story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a smart kid from a low caste in a rural village. Meaning a young man whose every avenue in life is blocked from birth. But when the story opens, Balram is a slick, successful entrepreneurial dandy narrating his life story in a letter to China’s Premier Wen Jiabo. (The film takes place in the mid-2000s, as did the book.) To quote Talking Heads, how did he get here?
“Slumdog Millionaire” this isn’t — the hero even says so. “The White Tiger” immediately puts us in the hero’s corner by sketching a modern India rooted in the crippling, corrupted social structures of the past. Balram’s village is ruled by a fat cat landlord, nicknamed “The Stork,” who gets 30 percent of everything and that’s how it is — how it always has been. Learning that The Stork needs a new driver, Balram applies for the job. One catch: He doesn’t know how to drive. The movie suggests this will make him no better or worse than anyone behind the wheel in his country.
The film picks up speed and sharpness when Balram relocates with his employers to New Delhi and becomes the driver for The Stork’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), newly returned from college in America and accompanied by a wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), born and raised in Jackson Heights, N.Y. Extending to their chauffeur the friendly empathy that only the children of the rich give to the help, Ashok and Pinky become almost tragic figures in the moral calculus of “The White Tiger,” smart enough to see everything wrong with their society but too comfortable to change it.
Both they and we are made uneasy by Balram’s obsequiousness toward them — his insistence that they’re the bosses and he’s unworthy. This is how he’s been trained. This, he says, is the “rooster coop” in which people like him exist, watching helplessly as his fellow roosters are taken out for slaughter. It takes much of the film and one terrible event for Balram to start coming around to the idea that he might be worth more, and even then it’s an effort. “Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love, or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?” he asks at one point.
Director Bahrani has always buried his social concerns in story and character; he’s one of the very few American filmmakers to pay attention to this country’s poor, and he applies his creativity to the paradoxes of India without missing a step. “The White Tiger” — named for the rarest of animals, a creature who makes its own destiny — shows Bahrani working at a peak of confidence, conveying the intricacies and cruelties of this society through a head-spinning weave of image and sound. How is anyone meant to live in a country living simultaneously in the 16th century and the 21st? And what do you become once you’ve stepped outside the rooster coop?
The answers may come as a shock but novelist Adiga says they’re inevitable, and Bahrani agrees, even if he brings his version to a close shortly after a second terrible event instead of spinning it out into further chapters, as in the book. That makes the writer a fan of Dickensian sprawl and the director more a Steinbeck-style polemicist. Balram’s tale is rich and ruthless enough for both approaches, and for any country built on a premise of one class eating another. “The White Tiger” would make a very pointed double bill with 2019′s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” and its lessons apply to cultures even closer to home. “There are only two ways to get to the top: crime or politics,” Balram assures us toward the end of this razor-sharp allegory. “Is it like that in your country too?”
THE WHITE TIGER
Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga. Starring Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra. Available on Netflix. In English and Hindi, with subtitles. 125 minutes. R (language, violence, sexual material).