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‘Scarface’ meets Indian caste system in ‘The White Tiger’

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 21, 2021

By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Animals abound in Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger,” a wild and rollicking adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. Animals are how our protagonist, Balram (Adarsh Gourav, in a chameleonic performance), makes sense of the world into which he’s born: an oppressively hierarchical Indian society that rigidly classifies people according to their caste, class, religion and gender. Balram, a poor, undereducated villager, feels trapped in a metaphorical rooster coop waiting to be slaughtered. He imagines escaping this cage, evolving into that rarest of creatures born once in a lifetime: the white tiger. He’ll have to do things he’d never imagined to achieve that.

Bahrani’s film, the story of a marginalized man infiltrating the upper echelons of the moneyed classes by any means necessary, feels like an Indian take on “Scarface.” Balram comes to learn that the only way to transcend one’s station in life is through “crime or politics,” not a million-rupee game show prize (in a nod to “Slumdog Millionaire,” dismissing any easy comparisons). “The White Tiger” is an incisive, almost anthropological breakdown of class and politics in a rapidly modernizing India, which also remains beholden to ancient ways.

Set between 2007 and 2012, the tale follows Balram’s transformation from wide-eyed “country mouse” who strives only for servitude into a slick “entrepreneur” with a ponytail and waxed mustached, sipping Johnny Walker Black. This wealthy Bangalore businessman, who meditates in his flamingo-wallpapered office, is the Balram we’re introduced to at the beginning of the film. In a narrative framing device, he pens an email to Wen Jiabao, the former Chinese premier, on the eve of his visit to India. Balram wants to tell him this story of how he made it here, proud, but candid about the dark details.

Just a few years earlier, young Balram yearned to escape his fate breaking charcoal for the tea shop in his small village, glimpsing a way out via the local crime family who collect one-third of the village’s income and mostly use it to bribe politicians to pay less in taxes. He takes driving lessons and manages to get hired as the driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the younger son, recently returned from America with an Indian-American wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas).

Serving a rich man is all Balram has ever aspired to, but once he passes through the front gates of Ashok’s palatial home, he learns the ways of the rich, the cruelties both big and small, the way they game the system in their favor. As the beginning and end of Balram’s story race toward each other, we discover the tough lessons he learns in the inner circle of this family: of bribes, corruption and murder and, crucially, the way his bosses are able to dehumanize and dismiss the human lives that have been categorically and yet almost arbitrarily placed beneath them.

Knowing where Balram ends up makes for a mystery as the audience attempts to understand how he gets from point A to point B. But as the film progresses to its inevitable ending, it leaves us wanting in terms of resolution. Balram gets what he wants, but at what cost? “The White Tiger” offers a cutting analysis, but no easy answers, leaving one with an uneasy feeling about not only what it means to make it, but also what it takes.

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