In “The White Tiger,” Bahrani’s first cinematic excursion set outside of the capitalist voraciousness of the United States, the filmmaker—who both directed and wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of Indian author Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel—affixes his analytical eye upon the global underclass. Although less imaginative in his world-building style here than in his 24-hour-news-cycle approach to Ray Bradbury’s seminal text, Bahrani has maintained the darkly comedic, progressively resentful energy of Adiga’s debut. Like the work of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid (in particular his 2008 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which Mira Nair adapted into a 2012 film starring Riz Ahmed), Adiga’s “The White Tiger” is primarily concerned with the divide between the haves and have-nots, the injustice weathered by the latter from the former, and the inciting incident that could finally spark an uprising. Bahrani sticks close to the source material, trusting lead actor Adarsh Gourav to take us through the lifetime of poverty that could inspire a moment of radicalization, and that faith is warranted. Gourav hardens before our eyes in a performance that flits back and forth between immature recklessness, calcifying fury, and justified braggadocio, and that multifaceted quality is key to the intentionally uncomfortable rags-to-riches nature of “The White Tiger.”
Bouncing between the early 2000s, 2007, and 2010, “The White Tiger” follows protagonist Balram Halwai (Gourav, and played as a child by Harshit Mahawar), who narrates his life story as part of a letter written to the (now-former) Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India. (A storytelling tactic lifted straight from the novel, that narration does get clunky here as an intrusion of international politics into an otherwise intimate story.) Balram is an entrepreneur, he boasts, but he came from nothing: He grew up in the rural town Laxmangarh, where his grandmother dictated every move. Although Balram was a strong student, his grandmother pulled him out of school to work at the family tea shop, hammering chunks of coal. His father died of tuberculosis. His brother was forced into an arranged marriage. The only way out of that lower-caste life was up, so when Balram overhears that the village’s Godfather-style landlord, nicknamed the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), is looking for a second driver for his returned-from-America son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), Balram decides that person will be him.
The decision sets Balram on a path that he describes, in his narration, with a mangled combination of triumph and shame. He convinces his recalcitrant grandmother to give him the money for driving lessons in exchange for the majority of his future earnings. When he’s hired and moves into the Stork’s family compound in Delhi, he’s overly deferential and thoroughly obedient, taking on more tasks and continuously belittling himself to secure the family’s approval. Balram cleans rugs, sleeps on the floor, rubs oil into the Stork’s calves, and argues that he deserves a fraction of the already-small salary they offer. Much of this inferiority is inbred, Balram says, the result of thousands of years of a rigid caste system (“men with big bellies and men with small bellies”), magnified by hundreds of millions of people fighting for the same low-paying jobs, amplified even further by the gap between India’s poor, both rural and urban, and the increasingly out-of-reach wealth horded by a few. Balram has been angry for a long time, and the charged attitude of his present narration bleeds into the past, coloring his interactions with the Stork and his family as we sense that something awful, some violence that no amount of money can fix, is coming.