“The White Tiger” is a creature which comes along once in a generation to texturize the darkest of moments with the bright splendor of its coat.
It’s also the title of an edge-of-your-seat film adapted from Indian author Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel.
Like the novel, the film is filled with socio-political commentary whose narrative arc bends towards the injustices which set apart the haves and have-nots.
Not just in India, although this is where the film is set, but everyplace where a poor person has ever said or thought of saying:
“To think of this again makes me so angry, that I might go out and cut the throat of a rich man right now”.
Those are the words of protagonist Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav).
Balram’s life (and this film) is framed through a letter he’s written to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao who is visiting Bangalore, India, for a tech conference.
The letter straddles the early 2000s, 2007, and 2010 with Balram (also played as a child by Harshit Mahawar) keeping you hooked with his storytelling verve and sing-songy Indian accent.
Balram is a successful pony-tailed entrepreneur with an outlandish hook-mustache which he refuses to twirl as he brags about coming from nothing.
Growing up in the back of beyond rural town of Laxmangarh, his white tigritude is identified as a boy but quickly squashed by an overbearing grandmother who pulls him out of his school, only to land him on his behind working at the family tea shop.
It’s a sweatshop, really. With Himalayas of coal for him to hammer.
Then, his father dies of tuberculosis.
To compound this misfortune, his brother is locked down by an arranged marriage. Thereupon, the lower-caste life becomes the height of his existence.
Balram dreams of rising above his origins, so when he overhears that the village landlord, nicknamed the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), is looking for a second driver for his straight-outta USA son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), Balram seizes his opportunity.
After convincing his grandmother to give him money for driving lessons in exchange for two thirds of his earnings as a driver, he’s eventually hired as a live-in driver at the Stork’s family mansion in Delhi.
Although he spends most of his time lip-locking his new boss’s posteriors, he has time to regale us with some home-spun wisdom: “Indian is two countries in one. India of light and India of darkness”.
The darkness, of course, is reserved for the likes of Balram who not only drives Ashok but also does every imaginable chore as he slaves away under the thumbs of his oppressive masters.
Then, just when you expect him explode with righteous indignation, he instead does an Indian head bobble and asks to work for a fraction of the starvation wags he receives!
Is this guy for real?
We see how thousands of years of a remorseless caste system has ingrained in him an inferiority complex which is nauseating.
Ashok and his alluring wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) seem to feel for him. But only in the way one would feel for a familiar piece of furniture, not a fellow human being.
Still, Pinky is a feisty ball of energy; all for breaking outmoded master-servant customs which subject Balram and his kind to indentured servitude.
Ashok too seems willing to treat Balram as a man instead of as residue from the dirt under his shoe.
He is so different from his father, The Stork, and his brother The Mongoose (Vijay Maurya).
Or so we thought.
Scene by scene, we see both Pinky and Ashok devolving into the other (milder) cheek on the butt of a rich world that Balram has to smooch in order to get by.
That’s when the switch on the humor is flicked to create a blackness which would leave even Lucifer groping around for the light.
Balram uses the metaphor to explain the caste system as poor Indians being stuck in a “rooster coop.”
They look down from their coops only to see their fate spread out on a lunch counter at KFC or worse, but they sit still and await such a grisly fate with stoic resignation.
They are what philosopher Franz Fanon called the Wretched of the Earth, and nobody but nobody can save them from their fate.
Well, so we think.
Until Balram finally writes, “I think we can agree that America is so yesterday … The future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man”, then we realize that even in one’s darkest moments, a white tiger can spring towards the light.
“Straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time,” Balram says by way of explaining what it takes for those trapped in lower castes to escape the rooster’s coop.
By this time, his soul seems dead but his spirit very alive to what it takes to thrive in a dog-eat-tiger world.
As the film ends, expect Balram to break the fourth wall by looking into the camera to explain the preceding two hours of a very watchable movie.
You’ll enjoy the music and the relentless pacing of the film.
The tonality of the film’s message is dyed by a dark humor tinged with a lightness of touch reminding us that even when we’re trapped on a mouse wheel, we can still become top cats.