Reel Review - The White Tiger (2021)
The White Tiger is as smart as it is silly. As harrowing as it is hilarious. As intelligent as it is entertaining. In other words, it’s on the hunt but it’s happy just to play.
Based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel of the same name, The White Tiger tells the story of Balram, a poor Indian villager who, through gut and guile, claws his way to the top of the food chain.
While I can’t speak for the book—I haven’t yet read it but I’ll definitely be cracking the cover after watching the film—The White Tiger eschews political correctness in favour of incisiveness. It is unabashed in its depiction of the remnants of the Indian caste system and how that system has evolved in a modern world with a globally-based and capitalist economy. Similarly, the film is unapologetic in its portrayal of Western weakness as a result of the excesses brought on by that same modern economy. Writer and director, Ramin Bahrani, expertly tied all of these cultural and social themes together tightly in a familiar tale of class struggle.
At the same time, it’s also just a good watch. If you aren’t terribly concerned with all of the heady, academic themes, then The White Tiger is also just full of humour and drama.
Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is a scintillating anti-hero. Though the film is narrated by and filtered through Balram’s perspective, an expert use of the first-person past tense gives us some distance from him. Just enough distance to be objective. While you can’t help but judge Balram for his shortcomings, he is still a sympathetic character. And that’s all down to Adarsh Gourav’s performance.
Gourav makes for a great Balram. While his character lacks the pyrectics of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom from 2014’s Nightcrawler, it’s a fair comparison to make. Where, thanks to the nature of its singularly focused script, Gyllenhaal had the opportunity to openly express the innermost thoughts bouncing around in Lou Bloom’s troubled head, Gourav doesn’t have the same space to work with. Instead, even despite the narration, Gourav has to hint at Balram’s deepest, most secretive thoughts and does so with an impressive range of microexpressions. Even as Gourav narrates Balram’s thoughts, there’s just enough doubt in the flicker of his eye that you don’t believe he is actually capable of what he says he will do. Until he does it.
It isn’t clear that fellow co-stars Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao had the same challenges that Gourav had but they were equal to their tasks and particularly well-cast for their roles.
There’s definitely some praise for cinematographer Paolo Carnera whose camera work did much of the storytelling. But if you’re looking for the opulent and ornate shots customary in the eastern tradition of filmmaking, you aren’t going to get that here. Carnera was primarily concerned with contrasting the grit and dirt of Balram’s jungle-world with the steel, glass and polish of the civility he seeks to attain. Trading beautiful shots for smart ones works particularly well for Carnera and for this film. The choice of music is also smart and acts like the killing blow for Bahrani’s excellent direction.
So, whether you want to watch something intelligent or just laugh and then be horrified, The White Tiger can be the king of your Netflix night. Just, you know, watch out for the claws.