There are so many layers to this drama of demoniacal discrimination that defines the New India, that you may need to watch the film at least twice to even begin to understand what director Ramin Bahrani has done to Arvind Adiga’s celebrated 2008 novel . Without beating around the bush let’s get one thing straight: The White Tiger, starring Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Adarsh Gourav, is no ordinary film.
It is an exceptionally deep and brutal study of India’s complicated class structure. It ruthlessly opens up wounds of discrimination and exploitation that never healed. We may call the underprivileged class in India what we please. Their plight and status remain unchanged. As the Indian social structure hurls dangerously towards a total anarchy with the have-nots reduced to simple noughts in the tricks of official demography, a film such as this, made by an outsider who has the dispassionate distance in his vision to see the truth and confront probes and excavates truths about social discrimination that we scarcely recognize.
Our hero in The White Tiger is a wily, shrewd opportunist, a driver in a family of fortune hunters. Balram Halwai is that fly on the wall whom we don’t even notice while we go about our business of living a satisfactory life by our own definitions. In one telling sequence NRI Ashok(Rajkummar Rao) and his America-bred Indian wife Pinky(Priyanka Chopra Jonas) make out in the backseat as if the driver is invisible. The driver has his hands on the front of his pants as he stares into rear-view mirror.Such moments define the class distinction and the moral dynamics of a social structure where we don’t even treat our subservients as human beings.
The cruelty and insensitivity of the invisibility of the indigent class functions on two levels: the obvious sadistic kind of exploitation , here represented by Ashok’s arrogant father(Mahesh Manjrekar) and his uncouth elder brother(Vijay Mourya) who are nakedly contemptuous of Balram’s poverty and powerlessness.
There is the other far more subtle form of exploitation represented by the so-called liberal broadminded couple played by Rao and Chopra-Jonas .Both are fine in their assigned status in this exceptional adaptation. But it is Adarsh Gourav who is the magnificent mainstay of the drama. As Balram the narrator, hero,villain and jester of the plot young Gourav is scarily real, exceptionally in-character building Balram’s fortunes from the dirt to the skies,in a pyramid that provokes us into questioning the power structure of a society thriving on an inequality that can blow up in our faces any time.
Adarsh Gourav’s Balram is a sociological aberration, in his words the one who has woken up while the world is asleep, a square among circles who has his affluent revenge on the moneyed but also allows himself the luxury of a conscience. In his voiceover Balram admits Ashok didn’t deserve the treatment Balram gave him. But then if you are going to make omelettes eggs have to broken. The next time you get your underpaid minion to massage your legs remember it’s your neck he wants to wring.
The White Tiger bursts the myth of the wellbeing of the master-slave relationship in our society. It is one of the most relevant films in recent times. Apt, opportune and germane to the Indian socio-political reality even though it is set in 2007, this film is, more than anything, an unconditionally engaging yarn with a central performance whose authenticity will haunt you for as long there is cinema about social inequality. It was Balraj Sahni and Bimal Roy who set the socialistic ball rolling in Do Bigha Zameen 67 years ago. Now it is Adarsh and Bahrani’s turn. Except that the powerless nowhereman in The White Tiger won’t take the atrocities lying down. There is blood on his hand and he isn’t hiding it.
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