The White Tiger review: Netflix’s new movie is more Joker than Parasite

When Indian-Australian author Aravind Adiga composed his 2008 unique The White Tiger, the globalism his book explained was a hypothesized future. Now Netflix’s movie adjustment of the book is showing up in a world where that globalism is a truth. A India-US co-production, directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, White Tiger functions Baywatch’s Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the unusual starlet who’s attained superstardom in both Indian and American media. It informs the story of bad villager Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a demure male captured in the Indian rat race of commercialism, caste, and class, as he tries to get his viewed fate by working as a driver for the kid of a rich proprietor. The movie has lots of powerful human drama (mainly originating from Gourav’s efficiency), however as an assessment of the world’s crossway with contemporary India, it typically arrive on the incorrect side of inauthentic.

Right from its preliminary scenes, the concern of “Who is this for?” feels inevitable. After a quick beginning embeded in 2007, portraying a New Delhi roadway mishap including Balram, his company Ashok (Rajkumar Rao), and Ashok’s other half Pinky (Chopra Jonas), the movie presents its framing gadget, set 7 years later on. Balram, now a suave entrepreneur in tech-capital Bangalore, composes an e-mail to going to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, describing his life story, from his youth in the town of Laxmangarh to his efforts to leave the “chicken coop” he was born into. Baked into this story, where an Indian discusses Indian life to an immigrant, is a continuous exposition that feels pushing away — no doubt to Indian audiences, and potentially to non-Indian ones also, in a world more linked than in 2008. The voiceover hand-holds the audience through the essentials of Hinduism, reaching to simplify through contrasts to monotheistic religious beliefs like Christianity and Islam. It orients the story’s class and caste aspects by method of pithy, purchasing from metaphors that may feel more in your home in a kids’s myth.

Adarsh Gourav and Rajkummar Rao face each other under a carport striped with neon lights in The White Tiger.

Image: Tejinder Singh / Netflix

The drama at the movie’s center is definitely appealing, developing Balram’s commitment to his companies till, as the movie’s trailers hint, Pinky and Ashok trigger that roadway mishap, then persuade Balram to take the blame. This main predicament strikes near the heart of India’s huge class divide, for a short time showing numerous real-world cases (consisting of that of Hindi movie theater star Salman Khan) where bad chauffeurs were required or persuaded to answer for the inebriated actions of their abundant companies. However the movie’s overarching assessment of Indian social strata starts and stops there, as the story is continuously pulled in between opposing micro and macro forces: in a specific sense, the interactions in between characters shows the layers of contemporary Indianness, however the movie is bound by voiceover targeted at dumbing down any additional expedition.

White Tiger is at war with itself, torn between realistic exchanges between Indian characters, and a monologue addressing an audience that’s presumed to contain no one remotely familiar with this geopolitical setting. The voiceover is narrated by Balram, but in an authorial sense, it’s an outsider’s view of India, peering in without truly making an effort to understand the place or its people. It was written and directed by an American, Ramin Bahrani, whose inclusion of Western cultural imperialism is limited to a few lines of narration about the influence of “the white man” being replaced by the growing economic power of India and China. However, the movie seems to have no idea what westernization actually looks like — the camera’s gaze is prominently focused on the “Indian-ness” of material objects and urban spaces, but Bahrani rarely stops to ponder how a city’s infrastructural identity might be transformed by the very American-ness Balram’s voiceover continuously references.

If there’s any authenticity to be found in the film’s story of a slowly westernizing India, it’s brought to the table by the actors. Pinky, like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, moved to New York as a child, while Ashok is an “Amreeka return,” a born-and-raised Indian back from the U.S. after a few years of work or study. Their accents alone tell a story of their relationship to the West, with Pinky sounding more consistently American, while Ashok breaks into occasional Americanizations of specific words and syllables. (Rao has never lived in the U.S., but he deftly captures what an Indian might sound like after a few years surrounded by Americans, softening the occasional “t” into a “d” sound, and loosening his vowels.)

As liberal Indians, they hope to come off as more enlightened about issues of caste and class, but their apparent awareness of these social ills is ultimately self-serving. Merely acknowledging a rotten structure does little to dismantle it, and both Rao and Chopra Jonas are unafraid to embody this ugly contradiction, of people torn in between the appearance of goodness and the desire for power. Ashok’s involvement with his father’s political corruption is reluctant, but he stays involved nonetheless.

Adarsh Gourav and ​Priyanka Chopra Jonas sit on the floor together in Netflix’s ​THE WHITE TIGER

Photo: Tejinder Singh / Netflix

Balram, similarly, exposes unspoken elements of the modern Indian class ladder through the way he speaks. In the film’s mid-2000s timeline, his English subtly improves after he spends time around Anglophones, but his spoken English in the 2014 voiceover is more “proper” and clean-cut. Even though what he says in this narration rarely extends beyond platitudes, the way he says it denotes his proximity to his past and his total adsorption into the global capitalist machine. It’s a shame that the film barely touches on this part of his life.

For a film that sounds this authentic, both in terms of spoken accent and the film’s mid-2000s American hip-hop soundtrack — which represented a major cultural shift in what New Delhi sounded like by night at that time — it’s a shame that this authenticity doesn’t extend to what the film tries to be “about” in an overarching sense. Its politics are half-baked at best, going as far as to include an analogue for Indian leader Mayawati, a woman from the oft-oppressed Bahujan caste. But her fictitious equivalent, dubbed “The Great Socialist,” is used only as a stand-in for the social ill of political corruption in the broadest possible strokes. Neither this character, nor the film, seem to have any grounding in anything resembling real Indian politics, or the issues of inequality constantly referenced in Balram’s voiceover. They’re more of a background hum than a central dramatic focus; politically, The White Tiger is more Joker than Parasite.

Adarsh Gourav, however, shines as Balram, a man whose surname denotes his lot in life: “Halwai” suggests a maker of halwa, or Indian sweets. Conditioned to serve by the caste and class structures he was born into, Balram oscillates in between groveling in front of his employers, and being ruthless in front of his peers, whose throats he isn’t afraid to step on to get ahead. Gourav captures both the wide-eyed, pseudo-romantic fascination with which Balram gazes upon society’s upper echelons, and the deep betrayal he feels when their acceptance turns out to be conditional. It’s a subdued performance with occasional flourishes of anger and frustration, and one so unexpectedly powerful that the movie’s greater flaws often fall by the wayside whenever Bahrani stops to focus on Gourav’s face.

The White Tiger certainly could have done away with its framing device entirely, or cut out its voiceover in favor of letting Gourav additional explore the character’s interiority. The pockets of human drama, when the characters speak to one another behind closed doors, makes the movie worth watching, even if the moments the movie talks to the audience feel discouraging and insincere.

The White Tiger is now streaming on Netflix.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.