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The White Tiger: A hard and edgy rags-to-riches story

The White Tiger (2021), 125 mins. Streaming on Netflix.

By John Hudson

Having read and enjoyed Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel The White Tiger some years ago I was curious about this Netflix adaptation, especially as it presents as a film rather than the mini-series which might have been more expected these days. I was also a little apprehensive, having seen the lifeless, pedestrian Netflix adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy not so long ago, but I needn’t have worried. The White Tiger is a success, and faithful to its source material.

The structure of the film is very familiar. Balram is a young Indian kid born into rural poverty who has the resourcefulness to escape the life he seems destined to live, and achieve material success in Bangalore. The film begins by showing us this success, but also signals it has not been gained without moral compromise. How is Balram to achieve this new life? We then watch as his story unfolds.

Unlike many similar rags-to-riches stories, Slumdog Millionaire included, there is no sentimentality or spiritual uplift present in this.

There is a hard, uncompromising edge throughout, embodied largely in the unscrupulous ruthlessness of the young protagonist. Adarsh Gourav, an up-and-coming young actor, is excellent at conveying the single-minded ambition of Balram, combining innocent charm with an essential unlikeability.

Learning to drive with borrowed money, Balram inveigles his way into becoming Number Two driver for Ashok, US-educated and representative of a new India, high-tech and outward-looking. Balram wastes no time in becoming Number One driver by dubious means, and a fixture of their household.

They control all aspects of his life, while liberally apologising for it, until their shocking betrayal of him removes any sense of duty he might have felt towards them. It’s at this point that Balram determines to move between the only castes he believes matter: the haves and the have-nots.

Director Ramin Bahrani manages to convey the scope and ambition of Adiga’s novel in the two hours running time. There was no sense of corners cut, or narrative threads left unresolved.

There is a major lack of resolution at the very end, but that is deliberate. What has Balram’s successful entrepreneurship meant for his rural family? There is darkness there.

Another impressive feature of the direction is the way in which the awful wealth disparities of India are shown but not dwelt upon. They tell their own story, and the routine grind of it all eloquently expresses Balram’s inner life and motivation.

I recommend this - if you've got Netflix.


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