By Rachit Raj
Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2008 novel The White Tiger is tailor-made for a screen adaptation. The story tries to showcase the grey, gruesome side of class divide in India. Quite accurately, a lot of it is set in Delhi, a city that forms a major crux of the juxtapositions that define the in-built understanding of class and caste hierarchy in India.
Like the novel, the film is set in 2007 (thus missing the opportunity to infuse the film with India’s current political climate). Like the novel, there is a distant resemblance to the reality of poverty and bigotry that prevails in India. The film provides a sanitized satire of a problem that it is so far away from, that beyond its mesmerizing entertainment, the film does little to speak about the Indian society.
Kai Po Che! is one of the best adaptations of a book by an Indian writer in recent history. That film did something quite extraordinary with its source material. Adapted from Chetan Bhagat’s 3 Mistakes of my Life, the film elevated the narrative by adding the flavour that comes with visual medium. The White Tiger lacks that unabashed braveness. The film does great on the casting front, getting some accomplished actors in every role, but lacks its need to penetrate deeper than the privileged, misguided voice of the novel it takes its story from.
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) forms the voice of the film, mirroring the style of the novel. The film looks at the journey of Balram as he struggles his way through life. The largest chunk of the film chronicles his time working as a driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), glancing at the unassuming relationship that a servant has with their master. In the eyes of Balram, it is almost a love-story. A story of unrequited love, where even a little friendly touch means more to you than it does to the other person.
In the best bits of the film, we hear a plain, impassioned voiceover of Balram staring down at the madness of the filthy rich mind-set of his master. The older, more “Indian” people in the family (Mahesh Manjrekar, included) treat Balram like they own his soul, while the U.S.-returned Ashok and his brought-and-bred-in-U.S. wife Pinky depict a friendlier attitude towards Balram. And yet, under the garb of their friendly presence is the same age-old bias. They are good, but they are also as deeply entrenched in the world of layers as the rest of them.
Parasite explored this relationship quite beautifully in 2019. In The White Tiger, we only get a grimace of the entire madness. The film, like the novel itself, is obsessed with quirky little phrases and one-liners to become an immersive, lived experience. The camera feels more at-home in the fancy universe of Ashok, than the dingy, cramped geography of Balram.
It helps that Ashok and Pinky are played by the ever dependable Rao, and Chopra. Together, they make their world more believable than the gimmicky life of Balram that even an able actor like Gourav cannot bring to life, and this is where the problem lies for an earnest but inconsistent The White Tiger.
A satire needs to be embedded in the world it is standing against. But director Ramin Bahrani fails to capture Balram as a real person. His voiceovers are quirky, but never heartfelt; his mannerisms are scanned by his inner voice, but never given good value. Eventually, Balram is simply a yardstick in the story, not a fleshed-out presence. And no amount of quirk or intent can turn that into a film that has little merit beyond its surface-level ambitions of being a convenient, comfortable, entertaining gaze at a grimmer, more searing conflict.