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I would not let him out-pray me.

The White Tiger
(2021)

(SPOILERS) The White Tiger begins so confidently, with such an abundance of wit and smarts both verbal and visual, that it can’t be other than a disappointment when its second half deteriorates into much more generic territory. We’ve been set up for great things. A journey with the narrator that will be at least as smartly plotted, devised and self-aware as he is. Take that first half on its own, and you’ve got not only a deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominee but also a winner. Even with the second half, the script remains superior to at least several other nominees in that category. Ultimately, however, The White Tiger’s early flair is rather defeated.

Based on the Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize Winner of the same name, The White Tiger shares the company of several other similarly lauded works that have led to illustrious adaptations (including Schindler’s Ark, The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, Life of Pi and Wolf Hall). To some degree, it follows to in the footsteps of the overachieving protagonists found in the likes of Kind Hearts and Coronets and How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying. When push comes to shove, however, it’s a broken bottle for a murder weapon and a fake breakdown, rather than anything finessed or satisfying, that proves the protagonist’s “masterstroke”.

The sociopathic desire to get ahead – be that breaking through class or caste barriers – is common to both Kind Hearts’ Louis and Balram (Adarsh Gourav). The latter is willing to do anything, including murder and accepting the retribution on his extended family, to shatter these bonds. But the picture strays from its thin line of irreverent black comedy as it continues. Somewhere around the point where Balram reveals his easy-going indifference to morality – most clearly after the road accident in which Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ Pinky runs down a child and he doesn’t even blink at the prospect of covering it up – the plotting becomes visibly less layered and textured.

During the opening act, director and screenwriter Ramin Baharani (most recently responsible for HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 adaptation) displays infectious verve as he charts Balram’s ascension to chauffeur for his village’s landlord via a mixture of opportunism and the ingrained obsequiousness of the lower caste (the ideal veneer for getting ahead). Balram’s mischievously effervescent voiceover boasts of his entrepreneurial spirit, how “America is so yesterday. India and China are so tomorrow” and “The white-skinned man has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone use, and drug abuse”. His singular metaphorical warning is of India as a rooster coop, the “greatest thing to come out of its ten-thousand-year history”; “99.9% of us are caught in the rooster coop”. His secondary metaphor of choice is self-referential. The only type of individual who can break free from such shackles is the once-in-a-generation white tiger (“a freak, a perversion of nature”).

Indeed, Baharani takes a gleeful swipe at the much-celebrated cheat of Slumdog Millionaire: “I was trapped in the rooster coop, and don’t believe for a second there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it”. As such, Balram will use his smarts to engineer any situation to his own ends, including ousting the longstanding lead driver from his position, having discovered the weakness of his Muslin faith, which his landlord loathes (“Is there any hatred on Earth like the hatred of the number-two servant for the number one?”)

But as Baharani begins to explore the movie’s main relationship, that of Balram and landlord’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has been living in the US and has married Pinky, the thrust becomes less certain. The White Tiger becomes bogged down in their fractious interdependency. Balram is revealed as variably naïve, according to needs for a given situation – one moment, he is subtly taking the piss out of Ashok’s ignorance of local village customs, the next he is signing away his freedom as the guilty party in the hit-and-run – and he is only hastened to decisive action by the prospect of being replaced. We’ve been set up to believe we’re in the company of a gifted schemer, but Balram is revealed as at-best forced into action by circumstance. Consequently, the framing device of his entrepreneurial leap to success is less easy to swallow.

In the end, The White Tiger’s satirical edge is blunted, disabused of its winking irony. Balram’s capitalism commentary initially throws out a feast of barbs and memorable lines about how China – the framing device finds Balram writing to the Chinese premier – is a great lover of freedom and individual liberty, how in contrast to the poor man “rich men are born with opportunities they can waste”, and “These days, there are just two castes. Men with big bellies. And men with small bellies”. By the end, the best the movie can muster, after Balram’s murderous act unnerved him for a full four weeks is “I am not a politician. They are extraordinary men who can kill and move on. Not me”. A movie that begins with the poise of a classic winds up decidedly ordinary.


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