THE WHITE TIGER – Review
As we ease into the new year, many might agree that a great way to start the 2021 cinema year is to enjoy a “rags to riches” success story. Perhaps “fable” might be the more appropriate word in this story. And just for some extra spice, it’s set in a distant foreign land, but only a decade or so ago. Like the big Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2008, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, it is set mainly in the dusty crowded streets of India. But that’s where the comparisons end. There’s no big “feel good” song and dance finale to leave you with a grin as you head to the lobby (or more likely as you switch off your device). As a matter of fact, this film’s hero openly derides that earlier work. So, who is this “basher’? He’s the focus of the story, a young man who, at one time, was called, with much admiration, THE WHITE TIGER.
The holder of that feline nickname is actually named Balram (Adarsh Gourav), who, as the story begins, is enjoying a wild, life-altering late-night drive in 2007. But before we learn too much, things fast forward to 2010 as he intently watches a news report about the Chinese Premier’s upcoming visit to India. Balram, now a perfectly tailored and coifed tycoon, sits down in his plush office to compose an introductory email to the visiting dignitary. The message begins as an autobiography. He tells of growing up “dirt poor” in a remote village, far from good schools and even doctors. He and his older brother are raised by their widowed father, but all cower before the family matriarch, Granny. At what passes for a school, Balram’s skills at reading make him a stand-out, prompting a visiting supervisor to dub him a rarity, as unique as a white tiger. He’s even given permission and papers to be transferred to a better school in a bigger town, but Granny nixes his dream. Balram is to help out at his poppa’s tea shop, mainly breaking chunks of coal into small nuggets. Growing up, he observes the celebrated visits from the village’s “landlord”, nicknamed “The Stork” who collects the rupees with the help of his thuggish portly son “The Mongoose”. Then as the years pass, Balram is surprised when the duo becomes a trio when he sees a second son, the impeccably dressed, worldly Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). It’s then that Balram hatches a plan. Surely they now need a second driver! He pleads with Granny for the funds to take driving lessons. After he snags a permit, Balram shows up at the Stork’s opulent estate. After a bit of “skullduggery”, he ousts the main driver and is tasked with transporting Ashok and his beautiful “raised in the USA” bride “Pinky Madam” (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). As Ashok’s family becomes more involved in national politics (doling out lots of bribes to avoid taxes on their coal interests), young Balram carefully begins to formulate a way to leave his lowly “servant” status behind and acquire the mantle of “master”.
Few actors have tackled a character’s “story arc” in a role as complex as Balram, and even fewer could “pull it off” with the skill of Gourav in the lead title role. With his beaming eyes and a broad smile, he conveys the fable’s “hero” as a wide-eyed eager innocent for most of the story’s “first act”, easily recalling any number of cinema “go-getters” cast from the mold of Horatio Alger’s young heroes of print. Then ugly ambition darkens that sweet “spark”, first in his elimination of his driving competitor, then as his eyes linger over the indulgencies of the affluent. Gourav shows us Balram soaking everything in while the “wheels” in his brain begin churning out a strategy. The joyful “lapdog” suddenly dishes out casual cruelty with little remorse. His moral “awakening” unleashes his inner beast. And Gourav hits every “note” with confidence. Matching his every “step” is his “master” and expert scene partner Rao, who immediately “takes” to Balram, “bumping” him up from servant/slave to kid brother confidant. His Ashok is the “cool boss”, though he still embraces much of the “old ways” (sending Balram to live in the fancy hotel’s parking garage). But he also “transforms”, sliding into the darkness of despair and addiction as he treats Balram almost as a “whipping boy”. Rao expertly takes Ashok from kind to cold. But his warm nurturing side really comes out when he’s interacting with the charismatic Chopra Jonas as his feisty mate Pinky. Stemming from her American upbringing, Pinky’s almost an incomprehensible alien to most of the males aside from her hubby (and the smitten Balram). She’s also a “bright light” amidst the moral darkness surrounding her in-laws. Chopra Jonas brings the passion to the scenes where she stands up to Ashok’s clan for their treatment of Balram, Ultimately Pinky has her own “turning point” as a tragedy almost extinguishes her “flame”. Her formidable talents are an essential part of the story’s principal trio.
This tale of greed, avarice, and “social climbing” is a true dramatic “rollercoaster” constructed by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who directed and wrote the screenplay adaptation of the novel by Aravind Adiga. Though it’s a big scripting “no-no” (remember the advice in ADAPTATION). Bahrami never overuses the “first-person narration” structure. It’s as though we’re reading Balram’s email bio over her shoulder. After the big time jump in the opening five minutes (almost “whiplash-inducing”) Bahrami “settles in”, but still peppers the story with quick cuts back to the village from the city or the mansion (especially to show the fatal consequences” of Balram’s plotting). He’s especially skilled at illustrating Balram’s inner ideas, particularly the “rooster coop” analogy, which he believes keeps his family (really most of his country) stuck in poverty. And much like another film “success” story THE FOUNDER, this “hero” is anything “but” as he climbs the ladder. His “comfort” comes with a hefty price (his soul, perhaps). A big asset to the work is the dazzling cinematography from Paolo Carnera. This skilled team makes THE WHITE TIGER a truly compelling and ferocious film feline.
3 out of 4
THE WHITE TIGER opens in theatres everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas beginning Wednesday, January 13th, 2021.