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The caste and the furious – ‘The White Tiger’

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I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I love unreliable narrators.

When handled well, an unreliable narrator can be one of the most potent storytelling devices there is. The understanding that there may be a degree of deception undertaken by the person telling the tale allows for such a wonderfully wide array of narrative explorations.

We get one such unreliable narrator in “The White Tiger,” directed by Ramin Bahrani from his own adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2008 novel of the same name. The film – currently streaming on Netflix – is one man’s story of striving to overcome the circumstances of his birth and the rigidly upheld mores of his culture and achieve the success he believes he deserves.

However, he is the one telling the story, leaving plenty of room on the margins for murkiness regarding the way in which things play out. That’s not to indicate untruth, but rather a flexibility of truth – we get his version of what happened, a version driven by anger at the unfairness of it all and a willingness to be ruthless in pursuit of perceived justice.

It’s a film that features a handful of very strong performances, an engaging aesthetic and some truly gripping writing. While there are a few bumps along the way, this is ultimately a movie that is thoughtful, thrilling and really quite good.

In the year 2010, the Chinese Premier is about to pay a visit to India. In Bangalore, an entrepreneur by the name of Balram (Adarsh Gourav, TV’s “Hostel Daze”) seeks an audience with the premier; in an effort to capture the official’s attention, Balram begins composing a message, one that lays out his life story and how he reached his current heights.

We flash back to his childhood, where we see a young Balram demonstrate intelligence and an aptitude for learning in his village’s tiny school. So bright is his potential that arrangements are made for him to attend a private school in Delhi on scholarship. However, his domineering Granny (Kamlesh Gill, “Gul Makai”) chooses instead for him to stay home and work at the family tea shop, consigning him to the same fate as his now-ailing father before him.

The years pass, with Balram constantly seeking an escape from this life. In 2007, he sees an opening. The landlord of the village – a man they call The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar, “The Power”) – is getting older; his sons will soon be taking over control and collections. There’s the older, rougher son – the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya, “Gully Boy”) – but Balram has his eyes set on the younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao, “Ludo”). If he can become a servant to this family, he can leave his village behind.

Balram manages to ingratiate himself to Ashok and become the man’s driver. Ashok is recently returned from years spent in America – years during which he, among other things, met and married his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra, “We Can Be Heroes”) – and has brought with him some rather more progressive views regarding caste and the treatment of servants such as Balram.

Slowly, he makes inroads with Ashok and Pinky, building a trusting relationship within the omnipresent confines of the servant-master power dynamic. It is not until an unanticipated tragedy strikes that Balram learns just where he stands – with his masters, with his peers and with his family. It becomes clear to him that if he is to have what he wants – what he believes he deserves – he is going to have to figure out a way to take it.

Throughout, we see the Balram of years later – a very different Balram living a very different life. And oh so gradually, we start to see these two places – past and present – converging; the path from one to the other becomes clearer, even as the story manages a few surprises along the way.

“The White Tiger” offers a different kind of coming-of-age tale, a story in which a young man’s considerable potential, blocked by cultural and societal norms, twists and changes itself in an effort at some sort of realization. Watching light become dark (though Balram might argue that it is precisely the opposite), an understandable, but still tragic shift from optimism to cynicism … it’s challenging at times, but well worth it.

Think of this movie as an Indian version of “A Bronx Tale,” only with liberal sprinklings of class anxiety and a heaping helping of “Scarface” energy. The chronological shifts allow us to see the end result before traveling the path that leads to it; we meet the smug, self-important version of Balram first of all. In essence, “The White Tiger” is the antihero’s journey.

In his juxtaposing the wealthy domiciles and the ramshackle villages – as well as the people living in them – director Bahrani lends an extra visual edge to the caste differences inherent to the story. He weaponizes the landscape, using it as accentuation and punctuation. Those striking contrasts give the film its fundamental aesthetic.

The performances – particularly at the top of the bill – are excellent. Gourav gives an incredible performance as Balram, capturing the internal struggle that comes with living within India’s rigidly-observed caste system. The blend of ambition and internalized self-loathing is truly something to see. Rao is perfect as Ashok, smugly superior to his “less enlightened” family members while still unable to actually embrace the progressivism he plays at; arrogant and exquisitely false. Chopra is good as well, embracing that outsider energy and self-congratulatory high-mindedness. Those three do most of the heavy lifting, though there are plenty of other performance highlights as well – the acting is generally superb.

You don’t see a lot of coming-of-age crime movies. One imagines they’re tough to pull off. With a compelling story, some dynamite performances and a couple of twists along the way (not to mention some unreliable narration), this one hits more often than it misses. “The White Tiger” knows when to purr … and when to roar.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 25 January 2021 10:47

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