The bestseller THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga looks at India’s wide-ranging class system. Now the story of greed and inequality is coming to Netflix. We’ll reveal in our review whether the film adaptation is convincing.
OT: The White Tiger (IND/USA 2021)
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) was born in the part of India that he calls “the India of darkness”: poverty and hunger as far as the eye can see – and tourists wandering through the crowds who get to know an “exotic place” and in the seeking enlightenment by bathing in the feces and poison-smelling Ganges. Nobody cared about the boy’s significant education, his extended family is heavily in debt since a cousin’s dowry – and they are under the strict thumb of Balram’s moody grandmother. Even as a small child, Balram had to earn money through jobs so that his family wouldn’t starve to death. For him, a position as a servant is already a step up in society, even if it comes with competition within the servants. But Balram’s ambition is awakened – and so he works his way up to being the chauffeur (and occasional servant) of a wealthy couple who have recently returned from America. While Ashtok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) live in a spacious mansion, Balram sleeps in a dusty basement that, in his eyes, might as well be a palace. But one fateful night changes everything…
The Indian journalist Aravind Adiga conquered the bestseller lists as well as the hearts of the features section and his industry colleagues in 2008 with his debut novel “The White Tiger”. Among other things, the novel, in which Adiga dissects not only India’s caste system, but also greed, globalization and corruption with biting, bitter humor, was awarded the Man Booker Prize. But where there is a lot of praise, there is also an inevitable backlash: “The White Tiger” caused minor controversy because the protagonist of the book, who retells the story in the form of emails, is a tough, unrepentant guy who shows his prejudices and doesn’t hide messed up values. He brazenly blasts stereotypes, intolerant worldviews, racist and religious prejudices and sees himself as a winner despite his unforgivable actions and characteristics. However, some critics of this aspect of “The White Tiger” forget to distinguish between Adiga and his fictional character – the fact that Adiga correlates Balram’s moral decline and his economic rise or the rise of his social reputation is neither a coincidence nor glorification.
Balram (Adarsh Gourav), Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Ashok (Rajkummar Rao).
As much as the novel wants to shake the status quo in the poor regions of India, it also wants to accuse the upper class of the cutthroat, greed, hypocrisy and ignorance that ignores the misery that surrounds them. Not surprisingly, one of the key observations Balram makes in his emails is that the rich are born with the luxury of wasting opportunities. People like him, on the other hand, cannot simply wait to receive compensatory justice in the form of a million-dollar prize in a quiz (“Slumdog Millionaire” sends his regards!) – they have to pay a moral price in order not to continue to be trapped in a symbolic chicken cage (but… maybe in a golden tiger cage). To put it more simply: You can defend your wealthy position with heartlessness – or you have to first gain a wealthy position through heartlessness. This is not a new insight, even if the hype surrounding many Oscar winners would lead you to think so, but it is one that cannot be emphasized often enough in view of the many rags-to-riches kitsch stories.
“You can defend your wealthy position with heartlessness – or you have to first gain a wealthy position through heartlessness.”
Film director and author Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”), who has previously been responsible for intense, deliberately unsubtle social dramas and is friends with “The White Tiger” author Aravind Adiga, is taking this template and taking a leap closer to the mainstream: his film adaptation of the bestseller is likely to be an unusually big Netflix original film for him reach an audience – and the flippant wit with which he filmed the material should also make “The White Tiger” more widely accessible than many of his earlier films. And yet Bahrani remains non-conformist and honestly takes a nasty swipe at a famous, cinematic “poor becomes rich” Indian story: where Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” describes the suffering in Indian slums and the greed among the rich with “Humble and happy “Romance, “Honestly lasts longest” moral and splashes of color that awaken the desire for vacation, “The White Tiger” is uncompromising. Yes, Balram’s upbeat narrative commentary, the soundtrack (including Panjabi MC and the Gorillaz) puts you in a good mood and, on the surface, Balram’s employers Ashtok and Pinky are charming. But Bahrani always finds a way to make the events unfold in a bitter, tragic or frustrating way. Success here always comes at the expense of others; inequality can either be maliciously exploited or immorally tolerated – there are no other options.
Balram and Ashok in front of a luxury hotel.
Newcomer Adarsh Gourav shines in transforming Balram over the course of the story from a submissive nobody to a fighter for himself enraged by injustice and, as the film makes clear in the first act, ultimately into another amoral rich man. Gesture, voice color, his movements – everything gradually mutates and, despite all his flaws, makes Balram a fascinating film character. But the way in which Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra make it clear how nasty their characters are beneath their false friendliness and pseudo-modesty also leaves a lasting impression. The fact that Bahrani doesn’t allow his audience any moral compass and rushes through Balram’s change in character in the third act, which was announced from the beginning, can definitely be frustrating. The former is only consistent (even if it may cause some interested parties to become emotionally disengaged early on), the latter, on the other hand, unfortunately shortens the film, which was previously detailed despite all the narrative crispness, in crucial moments. Nevertheless, this unromantic “Slumdog Millionaire” answer is a biting, witty social drama worth seeing.
“Newcomer Adarsh Gourav shines in transforming Balram over the course of the story from a submissive nobody to a fighter for himself enraged by injustice and, as the film makes clear in the first act, ultimately to another amoral rich man.”
Conclusion: “Slumdog Millionaire” without kitsch and romance: The bestselling adaptation “The White Tiger” is an evil, clever reckoning with greed and injustice.
“The White Tiger” will be available to stream on Netflix from January 22nd.