‘The White Tiger’ Roars With a Fiercely Energetic Critique of India’s Caste System

It does not matter what part of the world you live in, the have-nots are always forced to walk the bitter road of feeling the inequality imposed by the masters of society. Netflix’s “The White Tiger” understands this so well it has no time for some of the typical, feel-good solutions other movies quickly employ. Director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s acclaimed novel, winner of the Booker Prize, is on an instant level about life in contemporary India. Capitalism and the old caste system have produced a society where the glitziest wealth hovers above conditions of pure despair. On another level, this acidly funny movie is about all of us still trying to make sense of a changing world.

“I read the book when I was 13 or 14 years old. Just an amazing book,” said the film’s star, Adarsh Gourav, when talking about the making of the movie with Entertainment Voice. “It had a profound impact on me. 12 years later, I get a call from the film’s casting director, asking me to come audition for the film.”  Gourav plays Balram, who we first meet as an entrepreneur sitting down to write a letter to former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao on the occasion of his visit to India. It is Balram’s way of guiding us through his years as a struggling lower-caste man from rural Laxmangarh. His is a life riddled with unfairness and struggle. Balram is surrounded by a reality where he was pulled out of school to work at his grandmother’s tea shop, his brother was forced into an arranged marriage and their father died of illness (so defiant his feet still seem to firm up while being cremated). But opportunity strikes when Balram learns that the very rich Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) is in need of a driver. Balram hustles his way to Bangalore and into the position, which takes him inside the sealed off corridors of the privileged. Ashok is married to a woke Indian-American woman, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), who constantly criticizes the near feudal nature of the class system. But when a late night tragedy suddenly finds Ashok and Pinky laying the blame on Balram, the deepness of their divisions becomes too vast to ever overcome.

The films of Ramin Bahrani tend to be visually exuberant critiques of class divisions and power. His vibrant 2007 “Chop Shop” followed the exploits of a resourceful orphan in a Queens junkyard, while his 2018 adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451” stylishly reimagined Ray Bradbury’s dystopian fable of a world where books are banned. “The White Tiger” is like a response to heroic underdog classics about life in India like “Slumdog Millionaire,” where the harshness of the social system gets softened by Bollywood tones. There’s no singing in dancing in Bahrani’s movie, even as it moves with great energy and a sharp humor. With India still rapidly growing as an emerging economic power, boosted by a mass tech sector, Bahrani’s film offers a blistering critique. “My first reaction to the screenplay by Ramin was to be stunned at how a 300-page book was condensed into something so gripping. It’s such a tough choice as a filmmaker when you have to edit things. Despite that, the script was so well-rounded and complete. You could attach yourself to these characters and different worlds,” said Gourav.

The first two acts of “The White Tiger” feel like vignettes out of Dickens, as Balram smooth talks his way into Ashok’s world, practically dropping at the feet of the latter’s father, The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). To be lower caste in this environment means to be treated almost like chattel. The Stork expects his legs to be oiled and massaged, and if he so chooses he can simply kick Balram away. Constantly looking over his shoulder is The Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), the family enforcer who makes sure Balram always knows his place. One can easily see them supporting the current Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi. Ashok and Pinky represent young and globalized Indian elites who like to pretend they can treat Balram more as a buddy than a driver. “Ramin let me fly with the character,” said Gourav, “it was very important to understand Balram’s roots. I went to live in a village. I had spent most of my life growing up in Mumbai and the life that I led was very different from Balram’s reality. So I went to a village for two weeks to understand what life is like there and after that I went to Deli and worked at a small food’s store, cleaning the place, serving people. I was paid a 100 rubis a day, which is the equivalent of one and a half dollars. It was extremely uncomfortable and new for me. You then understand the kind of hardships Balram faces.”

Balram is not so much a hero as a man trapped by circumstances. He’s not above snitching on how another driver is secretly Muslim, so Ashok’s strictly Hindu father can fire him. He may be lower caste in India, but the writing acutely captures the feeling anywhere of having been born in the unluckier strata of society, forced to look up at the ones who have it all and wonder, why not me? With near satirical bluntness, “The White Tiger” also touches on the hypocrisies of Ashok and Pinky, who scoff at their elders’ old ways or look aghast when Stork is brutal towards Balram. That is, until their privilege comes in handy when they go partying and Pinky commits a horrible accident requiring them to frame Balram so he can take the blame. They would like to think of themselves as enlightened, when in reality class warfare is not Marxist fiction. For Gourav this film marks a real introduction for audiences via a major film. His performance is both empathetic but sober. He grovels too much before his masters and it takes time to reveal the more cunning man within, who when beaten down by life has the potential of becoming dangerous. Priyanka Chopra, a Bollywood star who also appears in big US films, and Rajkummar Rao, also well-known on the Indian screen, give strong performances that can be brilliantly tragic-comic.

“It was amazing and collaborative, the entire project,” said Gourav about the shoot. “It was very daunting at first to work with actors who have been around for a very long time around the world and in India. Priyanka completely put me at ease. Within five minutes I completely forgot that she’s a really big star. We talked about our families and common roots. Coincidentally we were born in the same city. With Raj, I’ve been a huge fan of his work. Here in India he’s done some really complex roles and always makes brave choices. The credit to making it all flow so well, however, goes to Ramin. He’s the kind of director who just lets you fly on set. He never stopped us from experimenting. He never discouraged us from contributing ideas. He was always pushing us to discover these characters even on the days when we were shooting.”

The crescendo of “The White Tiger” discards any romantic notions of ascending the social ladder. Balram will take what he feels is owed to him, even if it means dismissing moral qualms. How he eventually taps into economic prosperity is one of this film’s most brutal lessons in being cunning. Eventually he puts on dark sunglasses and announces that this is the age of the “brown and yellow man, god save the rest.” The message is global in the sense that the have-nots, whether in societies or as nations, will find a way to defy the status quo, whether through revolution or brute force.

“It’s not just about India that this story talks about,” said Gourav, “of course the characters are Indian but the representation is universal. The divides we talk about exist in developed countries too. In a developed country like America these divides exist, they’re just more complex in the Indian context. Some of us have become a little too complacent with the privileges that we have and the film can make us uncomfortable. It makes you realize that you have to be more sensitive. It starts a conversation. Many things Balram does might not be justified, but it’s an interesting conversation starter. What do you do when your destiny is decided from the time you’re born?”

The White Tiger” begins streaming Jan. 22 on Netflix.