Ramin Bahrani might be one of the most American of directors — an artist who has explored the agony, irony, and tragicomic pretzel logic of that thing we so guilelessly call the American Dream — so it might feel odd at first to see his name on Netflix’s adaptation of The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize–winning 2008 bildungsroman about a lowly driver’s ambitious, grisly rise to success in the rapidly changing India around the turn of the 21st century. The book, a global best seller that launched a thousand think pieces in its day, is not just about one man’s journey but also a totalizing, occasionally tongue-in-cheek meditation on the fractured nature of Indian society; it’s a dense, maximalist page-turner. Bahrani, however, tends to work in a more minor key: His narratives are often spare, finding drama and poetry in glances, gestures, subtle juxtapositions that reveal a broader vision of the world. (His first two features, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, are getting Criterion editions this month.)
The connection makes a bit more sense when one learns that Adiga actually dedicated his novel to Bahrani; the Iranian American filmmaker and the Indian author, it turns out, have been close friends since college. But it’s still an odd fit, and perhaps Bahrani knows it. He opens The White Tiger in uncharacteristic fashion, with a burst of pop music across a rapidly cut framing sequence introducing us to our protagonist and narrator, Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a driver who, for just this night, has been dressed up like a maharaja by his wealthy boss, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who also executive-produced), as they drunkenly careen through a darkened highway. There’s even a variation on one of those overused, sudden freeze-frame breaks that prompts the narrator to jump back in time; Balram doesn’t actually say “You might be wondering what I’m doing here,” but he might as well.
For its first hour or so, The White Tiger is a dizzying swirl of narrative and style — Bahrani directs energetically, deftly slicing through Balram’s early years — but the stylization can feel a bit borrowed, often relying on familiar storytelling devices. Maybe that’s strangely appropriate to the idea of a protagonist living a borrowed life: The story is framed as the recollections of Balram, who in the film’s present of 2010 is an entrepreneur who owns a car service in Bangalore, as he relays his shady path to power via candid, overly familiar, slightly delusional emails to then–Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who is due to visit India soon. Balram (who, we learn, is now a wanted man) proffers a lot of opinions and observations about his country, and about the rural town from which he hails, in what he calls “the Darkness,” a metaphor for the vast, uneducated, impoverished swaths of India. Wanting no part of a dead-end life where he’d be doomed to die in destitute misery like his father, young Balram finds his way to the city, where he ingratiates himself into the family of one of the landowners who effectively run his hometown and becomes one of their drivers. As played by Gourav, Balram is all smiles and innocent servitude, always knowing what to say — he initially refuses to be paid, noting the sheer honor of working for someone from back home. But he’s cunning, too: Early on, he manages to get the head driver fired after he discovers that the man is a Muslim.
Balram soon becomes the primary driver for Ashok, the family’s grown, U.S.-educated son, who, with his young wife, has recently moved back to India. Ashok feels uncomfortable with the medieval privileges of class, and he and Pinky treat Balram with a combination of familiarity and condescension. For all their friendliness, they’ll also wonder bemusedly about the fact that he instinctively makes signs of reverence when passing by even the smallest holy site. To them, he is not quite a person, but rather an object to be lovingly scrutinized, as well as a measure of what they see as their own enlightened modernity. It’s not long before the thin illusion of friendship is shattered and Balram becomes a scapegoat for Ashok and Pinky’s own murderous irresponsibility and carelessness. (That’s not a spoiler: The film hints at it in the opening scene.)
Bahrani’s work has gone from exploring the far edges of poverty and labor in the U.S. to the ruthless coercions of runaway capitalism, examining how class works on both ends — for those who have nothing to lose as well as those who have everything to lose. But The White Tiger might be the first time those extremes have occupied the same frame. Even though this is Balram’s story, Bahrani also understands the class anxieties of the wealthy, largely useless Ashok, whose own sincerity clashes with a casual embrace of his family’s corruption. The adaptation is quite faithful, but the fact that Ashok and Pinky come through as more fully rounded characters here (that they are played by two genuine movie stars probably helps) gives Balram’s own story more psychological and emotional weight, as his increasingly ruthless ambition manifests itself as a struggle with his humanity.
Balram’s insistent, cheerful narration slowly gives way to reveal the darker story that The White Tiger always was, about the force of will and cruelty required to get ahead in a depraved society where the rules of class are ironclad. So too does Bahrani’s style shift, from the eclectic, poppy freneticism of the film’s first half to something grim, unhinged, maybe even a little surreal. It works because Balram is such a powerful character (and Gourav, a relative unknown, is a real find, alternately cherubic and deadly), and we’ve become so invested in his unsentimental education in the ways of the world. Through this unique figure, and through this highly specific portrait of one country, The White Tiger achieves a kind of universality. “The Darkness” that Balram speaks of can be found not just in India. It cuts across borders and continents, and it cuts into the soul as well.
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