Getting to the heart of a film steeped in old mindsets and lost ideologies meant to suppress
A white tiger, someone with unique and rare talents and skills who becomes much more than what they are, is born only once every generation. Someone who finds true greatness and meaning in their life is a white tiger.
Based on the 2008 novella by Arvind Adiga, The White Tiger looks at the stark contrast of rich and poor in India through the journey of Balram Halwai, played by Adarsh Gourav, who lends his character honesty and strength. Halwai, who is highly educated and intuitive, comes from a large and very poor family in Laxmangarh, India. His life is dictated by his grandmother, the head of their extensive family. He lives in a world that practices spirituality as well as the common practice of arranged marriages.
As a narrator, Halwai describes two Indias, one that exists in light and another that exists in darkness—though he dreams of a better life with immense optimism. Director Ramin Bahrani expertly shows the depths of poverty and the privileges of wealth, but the film’s final act left me conflicted. Perhaps it is a social statement on a society of vast inequities, but as a story, I felt a little betrayed.
Halwai leaves his family to pursue a career as a chauffeur for the wealthy village landlord known as the Stork. He is hired by the morally corrupt family to drive the son, Ashok, and perform every task that is expected of him. Ashok takes Halwai under his wing and tries to show him his own worth while educating him about the ways of India. Ashok is played by Rajkummar Rao, who turns in a strong performance with sincerity and charisma.
Halwai is engaged to Pinky, a free-spirited woman who was born and educated in America, played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas. She worked at New York University’s hospital and doesn’t approve of her fiancée’s family or the misogynistic practices in India. Chopra Jonas beautifully portrays a woman who urgently wishes to return to her life in New York but is pulled by her husband and his family to remain in India. The character has a strong arc, but I couldn’t help feel her story was left unfinished. Her character leaves midway in the film, and viewers never find out what became of her.
Cinematographer Paolo Carnera brilliantly captures the tone and atmosphere of India. The film is colorful and vibrant and lends a euphoric atmosphere in almost every frame. In many ways, India itself is a character. From people on the streets to children in the villages and the jam-packed traffic and nightlife, this film creates a rich setting.
Once Halwai achieves a level of success, he becomes greedy and turns on those around him. This transition comes too quickly and feels like it lacks foundation. I was invested in Halwai’s journey until he began turning against people who showed him nothing but kindness, eventually escalating into an act of complete betrayal and murder. It made me wonder what the message of this film was, and it also made me think of another film, Slumdog Millionaire, about an Indian boy becoming a man and fighting for his chance to make it to the next level. One does it through a game show, while the other cons his way through life.
But what made Slumdog Millionaire a masterpiece was its honesty; the character wasn’t only moral, but the story was more authentic. Thematically, both films exist in the same universe but from a different perspective. The White Tiger’s lead also gets his rags-to-riches story, but at the cost of his soul. That price, that soul, is where I find myself struggling. Both stories feature leads that are educated, hopeful and innocent, but while one never loses his way, the other turns to corruption, stealing, lying and murdering. Halwai’s journey to get rich in India sounds all too American.
Overall, The White Tiger is a film that I loved more than hated. Despite my internal conflict, this film painted quite a powerful portrait of inequality and corruption that is worth watching, a compelling cinematic story. Everything from the sharp camera work to the confidently directed foundation and the strong acting performances makes this film worthwhile. Most importantly, the film breaks the language barrier, with Hindu and English both piquing curiosity among American audiences. It is a tale rich with culture and heart, but maybe–maybe?—not quite enough heart.