Director; Ramin Bahrani. Starring; Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas. Rated R. Color. 125 minutes.
“That is when we saw the animal that is born once in a generation. The White Tiger.” – Balram
Everyone’s journey in this life is different. We cannot control what situation we are born into. What we can do is live the best possible life given the circumstances. Or not, your choice. A young boy named Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is brought into this existence as part of a large family living in extreme poverty in one of the most impoverished nations around the world, India. Yet somehow he rises to become fairly wealthy. How does he do it, and are his means justified? His story plays out in director Ramin Bahrani’s excellent new film “The White Tiger”.
We begin with Balram clearly in a position of power and money. He asks the viewer, how did I get here? And so we go back to the beginning as he narrates the journey for us. Young Balram is living in a village so poor the most valuable currency is livestock. His father (Satish Kumar) is constantly in debt with a gangster type landlord that runs the whole area and always collects. When his father dies of lung cancer, and obviously with no medical help available, Balram is reminded of something his teacher told him; “Be the White Tiger”!
It is then that Balram decides he will not end up like his father. Opportunity strikes when a big time rich businessman known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) visit the village to do business with the landlord. Having never driven a car, the kid wants to drive for the rich. Balram gets a crash course, talks his way into The Stork’s mansion, and soon is driving for Ashok. The new job is not so glamorous at first as he is the second driver. Lots of house keeping, massaging the boss’s legs, and worst of all a daily belittling routine for being an uneducated piece of garbage.
At first the young Ashok is the only one in the family that treats Balram with respect. The young rich kid does not insist on the door constantly being opened for him and speaks with his driver like a fellow human being. Ashok’s kindness stems from his time studying in America as well as his beautiful American raised new wife Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas). While born in India, Pinky comes from a different world that is far more modern and at least sometimes respects those less fortunate. This makes Ashok seem like an outlier in an otherwise despicable family with no care for society. Emphasis on the ‘seem’.
The trophy wife loves the good life of endless riches, but hates the bigoted family her husband is a part of. Telling a woman she is not allowed to speak up is not in Pinky’s vocabulary. However, those penthouse suites sure are nice. Ashok’s family throws a no expenses spared birthday party for Pinky. They get very drunk with Balram waiting outside in the car. An alcohol infused late night tragedy on the way home ensues and of course Balram is going to be the fall guy. It is at that point the young couple’s true colors come out on both sides.
So how does our protagonist gain his riches? Well, for starters The Stork and his family of bribing millionaires are in trouble as the corrupt politicians lose the country’s leadership with a socialist elected to lead India. Uh-oh, rich people have to scramble! Combine that with the tragedy that took place with Balram blamed and the ‘like family’ style servant is put in his place and reminded that he sleeps in the garage. But as always, don’t poke the bear. I will let you discover how it all plays out.
“The White Tiger” is very much a flip side version of the classic rags-to-riches story. This is no “Slumdog Millionaire”. Balram’s story is so compelling because it has grey area as he is not a saint and neither is any character involved. His family is greedy for him to send them money when he is just a driver, but they also continue to live in the poverty stricken existence he was raised in. Ashok is the ‘moral’ son in a disgusting family, but he was still raised by a disgusting family. Kinda reminds you of say an Ivanka Trump. And finally our hero is not exactly devoid of having big skeletons in his closet during his journey towards success. You are rooting for Balram in the beginning, but in the end you just kinda are.
This is also not a movie that is to be taken completely seriously as it contains plenty of satire. Whilst climbing up the ladder in life strategically placed popular American rap songs from the likes of acts such as Jay-Z are used to show how Balram is making that ‘western’ people money. Conversations in a garage full of drivers for the rich provides us with several hilarious moments. Plus when Balram is learning how to drive and has to figure out the way in which to tell others on the crowded streets of India to screw off is awesome.
Director Ramin Bahrani is previously known for low budget indies about those of Middle Eastern decent trying to survive here in America. His breakout “Chop Shop” was highly praised in the realm of the critical festival circuit, yet never found an audience. He then went on to make a few Hollywood backed movies that were throws away’s. Fortunately, that allowed Bahrani to make the real stuff he once did, but with a budget. “The White Tiger” is its own animal which looks at a society in a unique way that is at the same time relatable to all cultures. Let us hope Bahrani is able to get big names like Ava Duvarney and Jay-Z and Priyanka Chopra-Jones to back his films in the future so that he can bring us even more inspired work.