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Movie review: ‘The White Tiger’ takes a ferocious look at class divide

Al Alexander
More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
Adarsh Gourav as Balram in "The White Tigers."

You’d swear Ramin Bahrami caught a screening of “Slumdog Millionaire,” took exception to its eight Oscar wins, and decided to craft an India-based rags-to-riches story of his own, albeit about 50 shades darker and far more realistic. That’s “The White Tiger” at its most basic, but there’s more meat on this cat’s bones than a mere retort. It’s a profound, timely message sure to resonate far beyond its setting in early 21st-century India, the world’s largest democracy. But there, like here, not everyone is created equal.

That’s the gist of Bahrami’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s prize-winning novel about a pauper evolving into a prince via a combination of cunning and chutzpah. The book was released in 2008, the same year Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” became a worldwide smash. But where the two similarly constructed tales part ways is in how Bahrami daringly sheds light into the blackest corners of a world where the have-nots are steadily rising up against the haves. If you need further proof, see the events of Jan. 6 in Washington D.C.

Those brazen insurrectionists render Bahrami prescient in his stirring depiction of a marginalized peon driven to the brink. Through Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a bright young man relegated to the cellar of India’s archaic caste system, we’re exposed to the constant assault of condescension heaped upon him by the wealthy employers hiring him as a driver. The youngest of these “superiors,” Americanized newlyweds Ashok and Pinky (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas), are the worst offenders, smug elites who errantly believe they’re woke by their friendly, transactional attitude toward Balram.

More on that later. For now, Bahrami directs our focus on Balram and the enterprising initiative he adopts in manipulating his way into a job yielding enough earnings to care for his impoverished kin in rural Laxmangarh. Plus, the little extra he siphons off via inflated expenses and phony petro and repair bills. It’s all quite clever and in rendering Balram analogous with a “white tiger,” the rare animal emerging but once in a generation. It’s a moniker Balram’s teacher hangs on him as a child, but what little hope it may provide evaporates the day his matriarchal Granny pulls him from the classroom and puts him to work.

But even at such a young age, Balram knows that if he’s going to forever be a laborer, it’s going to be under optimum conditions. That’s how he winds up in Delhi working for Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), a Mafioso in need of a chauffeur for his son, Ashok, and daughter-in-law, Pinky, who’ve just arrived from a long stay in the USA. Almost instantly Ashok welcomes Balram more like a pal than a servant. But a servant he is, and when it’s no longer convenient for Ashok, all loyalties evaporate.

This shaky bond feeds Balram’s belief that India’s lower class, the Shudras, are like caged roosters cluelessly watching their brethren being slaughtered, all while knowing the same fate awaits them. What separates Balram from the other chickens is his visionary attitude. He correctly foresees the demise of Whites (too much buggery and drug abuse) at the hands of Yellow and Brown men like himself. He even puts it in an email he whimsically composes to Wen Jiabao, correctly informing the then Chinese premier that “America is so yesterday; India and China are so tomorrow.”

The missive is dictated in voice over, as part of a script heavily reliant on Balram’s running narration. What the email doesn’t mention is the ignorance of a die-hard caste system rendering it nary impossible for a pauper as smart, resourceful and clever as Balram to rise above his station. The twist is Balram refuses to accept that destiny, defiantly so. And it’s enthralling as he tolerantly waits - like a tiger - to pounce on his prey when an accumulation of mass indignities driving the driver over the edge. And when it does, Bahrami taps into his inner Quentin Tarantino, summoning shocking bits of violence, often presented in the blackest of comedic tones. It’s thrilling. But it’s foremost a cautionary tale of what can happen when you spat upon a certain class of people once too often. It can get ugly, fast.

It speaks to the incendiary tone Bahrami (“99 Homes”) sets from the onset that the ensuing violence feels oddly justified if not requisite. And what makes it palpable is the charismatic appeal of Gourav, an actor with a face so sweet you’d never suspect Balram capable of such chilling acts. His Balram emerges the antithesis to Dev Patel’s Jamal, the adorable, put-upon kid destined to win the pretty girl and a bundle of cash on a TV game show. In fact, Balram flat out says so in a tongue-in-cheek dig at “Slumdog.” Yes, the poor hick from the sticks rises to the level of a successful entrepreneur, but his triumph over oppression isn’t so much the point as is his patience and opportunism, attributes that through the unkindness of others devolve from deprived to depraved.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“The White Tiger”

Cast includes Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonus. (In English and Hindu with English subtitles.) Premieres Jan. 22 on Netflix.

(R for language, violence, sexual material.)

Grade: B