The White Tiger movie debuted this January after long-delayed plans for movie production, and is one of the largest international releases of an Indian movie in recent years. It’s not hard to guess why: Despite its source material being over a decade old, it presents a story of class warfare, global inequality and crises of democracy that have become even more relevant today.
Based on the book of the same name, The White Tiger is a somewhat eclectic story of class struggle in a neoliberal world, a witty critique of the oppressive social hierarchies and government institutions in India, as well as a psychological study of the origins of crime and violence — and its complicated morality.
At the center of these threads is protagonist Balram Halwai (played by Adarsh Gourav), who rises from his poor, lower caste, rural background — destined to servitude — to become his own master and own his own company. He does this all through the murder of the man he worked for: the upper caste, upper class, Americanized Mr. Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). Through Balram’s own narration, we see how he grows from a precocious, talented boy into a young man who is constantly dehumanized, controlled and ignored. He is mistreated by his bosses, his family and his government, causing him to lash out in what he believes to be the only way to escape the jungle — violence.
Several American reviews have noted that the movie is almost the opposing force to the last great international movie about India — Slumdog Millionaire — a grittier, more realistic vision of how the Indian poor live. As Balram himself says, “no game-show prize awaits” him (the crux of Slumdog Millionaire). He only has a life of running from his crimes and struggling to never fall back into poverty. While it’s true that The White Tiger is certainly darker, rawer and angrier, it’s not necessarily more real.
What really makes the story so cogent and interesting was that it takes the perspective of the murderer without us knowing that to be the case. All the violence and oppression he faces is filtered to us through him. We come to realize how close he was to his father, who died an early, preventable death due to manual labor and the lack of healthcare in his village. We see how Balram loved and worked for Ashok and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) like his parents, only to be let down when they allowed him to be the fall man for the death of a homeless girl that was the fault of Pinky, not Balram.
This, coupled with all the daily humiliations — his accent being mocked, being treated as uneducated, the rundown and segregated living quarters he had to live in as a servant — means that you cannot help but sympathize when he lashes out, freeing himself from oppression through revolution.
Yet the perspective leaves us purposefully fooled. Much as The Joker (2019) was not a justification for violent revolution against the rich, The White Tiger simply lays out a story of violence against the rich through the prism of a flawed person who faced and understood his oppression in very specific ways. Think, for example, about Kusum, Balram’s grandmother and the matriarch of his family, who is considered one of the primary antagonists of the movie — constantly pushing Balram to send nearly all of his money home “to support the family,” to marry, and to leave Delhi and come back to the village.
Balram, of course, resents these demands and wants to preserve his individualism and freedom to “break out of the rooster coop” of family and its related obligations, which he considers to be the main reason for the lack of lower-class revolt or resistance. Yet from Kusum’s perspective, a person who is undoubtedly facing the same oppression as Balram, the solution to break out is through the building of family wealth — of gradual, stable improvement through the pooling of resources. At the end of the movie, it’s strongly suggested that Balram’s murder of Ashok was met with the retributive murders of Kusum and the rest of his family in the village. I don’t think Balram is to blame for those murders, but to Kusum, it would’ve undoubtedly seemed so.
Thus, the strongest point of the movie is that it is able to carry these same moral quandaries to the big screen, aided greatly by Gourav’s performance as Balram. He really succeeds in bringing the character to life. His mannerisms, speech and expressions evolve throughout the movie from meek responsiveness to smoldering anger.
Yet by sticking so sincerely to the book, I think the movie does itself a disservice. Nearly all of the lines from the movie and all of the plot points are the same in the book itself, and a substantial amount of the movie just ends up being a narration chock full of Balram’s sociological critique and dry humor. This works far better in the book than in the movie, where it has more space to be digested. Yet even with the voiceover, the movie still has a fast-paced, pulpy feel to it. For viewers who have not read the book, it should not be a significant issue.
Overall, The White Tiger provides a compelling and at times difficult watch. It forces you to consider the impact of global capitalism on the nuanced (and often unravelling) social hierarchies of third-world countries reacting to the forces of a changing economy and makes you deal with the moral weight of understanding and empathizing with a killer. While its brevity and overuse of the overbearing narration of Balram may weigh on its exploration of these ideas, it’s close to as good a recreation as you can get.