Updated: January 23, 2021 8:33:25 am
The White Tiger cast: Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Adarsh Gourav, Vijay Maurya, Mahesh Manjrekar, Swaroop Sampat
The White Tiger director: Ramin Bahrani
The White Tiger rating: 3 stars
‘The days of the White man are over. It is now the time of the Brown man and the Yellow man’. Ramin Bahrani’s savage, darkly comic adaptation of Arvind Adiga’s prize-winning The White Tiger is full of these brushstrokes which teeter on the verge of being either banal or profound, but which could only come from a man who has clawed his way up the caste-class ladder in India. A man who comes once in a generation, an impossibility, just like a white tiger.
And that man is Balram Halwai, a ‘servant’ who believes that his future lies in serving his ‘master’, with everything he possesses. He knows that the only way he can get into the good books of his rich landlord (Manjrekar) and his older son (Maurya) is by diving at their feet, and that bowing and scraping will be his lot, until he gets to his real target, the younger US-returned son Ashok (Rao).
When Adiga’s 2008 novel came out, Bangalore (now Bengaluru) was the mecca of those who wanted to ‘do something’. Watching Ashok’s eagerness to get there in order to start his start-up already feels dated: the spread of information technology, and its multi-million dollar spinoffs, has created many similar hubs in India. But the crucial element which has the same bite still is the cavernous gap between ‘men with big bellies’ and ‘men with small bellies’, between men like Ashok and Balram, and how hard it is to bridge that gap.
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Ambition comes easily to men like Ashok, who has acquired speedily those accoutrements many ‘desis’ do when they get to the US: an accent which slips, a foreign wife, and a skin-deep distaste for the way things are done back home. The way he becomes that guy who believes in the equality of all men when he is with Pinky (Chopra), and the way he goes right back to his feudal roots in the company of his father and brother is one of the sharpest parts of the film, and Rao delivers an on-point performance as the neither here-nor-there kind of guy, seen as a soft touch by both his family, as well as by his ‘servant’. Both feel that he is not man enough to keep Pinky in control, and both have contempt for him. The family comes as thinly veiled irritation. And Balram’s is in the way he smiles. It’s more a rictus actually, from behind his paan-stained teeth, and it never reaches his eyes.
The constant voice-over becomes annoying after a point. We don’t really need to be told what’s going on in Balram’s head if we can see it play out on screen. The more tell-less show syndrome takes away from the experience, which is also a bit marred from the village sequences which feel like they were sets. Balram and his family speak in Purabiya, but his ‘dadi’ sounds Punjabi. Huh? And that mixing of tongues travels from the village to the city, as we see Balram the newbie learning the ropes via the seasoned drivers who spend their time in dark, dank basements, waiting for the summons from the ‘sahibs and memsahibs’.
There is also the nexus between the politician and the businessman, and the bags of cash that are exchanged for mutual benefit: many-storied sarkari buildings become the site for bribery and corruption. Manjrekar and Maurya are suitably hardened, foul-mouthed, bigoted feudalists who know their place in the world, and their unease with the female ‘low-caste’ neta (great to see Sampat back, even if briefly) who has them by the short and curlies, is evident. Their interactions didn’t need to be as underlined, or was it for the international audience?
These are stand-out acts. Chopra does her bit, too, though her American-desi rebellious ‘bahu’ is a bit fuzzily dealt with. But the film belongs to Gourav, who channels that very specific, razor-sharp mixture of obsequiousness and rage, to come up with a stellar performance. Never deride those who serve you, and never, ever turn your back on them, or the white tiger with the brown skin, will swallow you whole.
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