The White Tiger movie review: Pallid, superficial and made with one eye on the Western gaze, the other on the Hindutva mob

Ramin Bahrani's film embraces the book's upper-caste take on caste, but deletes several scathing passages by Aravind Adiga that reveal the hero's disdain for Hinduism.

Anna MM Vetticad January 22, 2021 13:31:59 IST


The White Tiger opens on a shot of one of India's most famous Mahatma Gandhi sculptures and a giggly night-time joyride through what is popularly known as Lutyens' Delhi. Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao's characters are in hysterics as she drives wildly through one of the most familiar parts of India's capital city. In the back seat is a man decked out in a turban and shiny clothes who she addresses as "Maharaja". In quick succession the camera captures the giant Gandhi statue at the intersection of Mother Teresa Crescent and Sardar Patel Marg, a car hurtling down the wrong side of the road, a cow in the middle of the street and a poor family on a footpath.

Just over a minute has passed by now and the globally acclaimed American director Ramin Bahrani has already delivered a parade of what the average Westerner considers identifying marks of India: Gandhi - check, poverty - check, cow - check, and (although it is later revealed that the title was being used ironically), Maharaja - check. I almost expected to see a tiger strolling by. Bahrani obviously wanted to tick all four boxes within the same scene, and prioritised the Western gaze over authenticity. Because as anyone who knows Delhi will tell you, first, that particular area lies in a high-security zone bordering the President's Estate and therefore, there is no question of finding impoverished pavement dwellers there; second, it is one of the poshest, most well-kempt parts of Delhi so there is no question of cattle straying in either. In fact, if Bahrani was genuinely keen on portraying a harsh Indian reality - the shocking contrast between the country's rich and poor - then Lutyens' Delhi with its squeaky clean roads, thick green cover, well-pruned shrubs, sprawling bungalows and well-maintained signage would have been the place to visit to highlight the scrubbed and sanitised lives of powerful, privileged Indians versus the grime and deprivation in this metropolis's vast poorer localities. When, however, you want your clichés all within a stone's throw of the best Gandhi you can find, nuance and inconvenient accuracy can take a hike.

This is Scene 1 of The White Tiger, a screen adaptation of Aravind Adiga's Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name that drops on Netflix on Friday. Adiga's book was a brutally frank indictment of India's socio-economic divides, the callousness of the wealthy towards their own employees and the hopelessness of the poor, hemmed in as they are by the exploitative upper echelons of society, politicians who promise everything but deliver nothing and centuries of social conditioning that leave large sections of the distressed classes incapable of rebelling. Adiga's book, published in 2008, was a well-deserved slap in India's face, written with dark humour and unapologetic honesty, but it also displayed a poor understanding of the caste system and was unconvincing in its bid to speak through the voice of the once-poverty-stricken protagonist, Balram Halwai.

Bahrani's film embraces the book's upper-caste take on caste, but deletes several scathing passages by Adiga that reveal the hero's disdain for Hinduism, especially his use of a beloved Hindu deity to explain subservience in India. In Bahrani's home country, the US, Hollywood is routinely critical of the majority religion (namely, Christianity), which is as it should be, but here in post-2014 India governed by the Far Right, he avoids that risk.

Pandering to the Western viewer while fearful of the Hindutva mob - that is about as tricky as a tightrope walk can get, especially when the filmmaker's own understanding of India is evidently limited.

Bahrani's The White Tiger stars Indian actor Adarsh Gourav as the "Maharaja" of that introduction. His real name is Balram Halwai, and he works as a driver for Mister Ashok (Rao) whose wife Pinky Madam is played by Chopra Jonas.

The White Tiger movie review Pallid superficial and made with one eye on the Western gaze the other on the Hindutva mob

Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger

Balram has emerged from extreme poverty in a filthy North Indian village to his present position - Scene 1 is set in Delhi of 2007 - with a combination of diligence and evil strategising. But he is numerous rungs down the social ladder below Ashok, who treats him with condescending kindness while Ashok's father (Mahesh Manjrekar) and brother (Vijay Maurya) consider him sub-human.

Unlike most of his people, Balram is dissatisfied with his situation, furious and ambitious. But he also adores Ashok and is desperate to please his masters - until a dramatic turning point that changes him forever.

As with the book, the film too rests on the erroneous assumption that caste has given way to class in modern India, and that human beings might rise up that social ladder by sheer hard work and enterprise. This is the sort of myth that upper castes perpetuate, ignoring the reality that although there has been considerable social and legal reform since Independence, beyond the statute books in the real world, this is still a country where a Dalit President could be mistreated in a place of worship, where poor Dalits are raped and lynched, where inter-marriage is rare and could be dangerous for the Dalit partner in the relationship, and where even a comparatively well-off Dalit could be killed for having the audacity to grow a moustache, eat in the presence of upper castes or ride a horse in his wedding procession. Education and money could bring an individual some social advancement, but even today, the caste into which a person is born is a 'stain' that is never forgotten.

It speaks volumes about the literary establishment in both the West and India that, despite this gaping lacuna, Adiga won a Booker and glowing reviews.

What the film does get right is its searing candour about class and religious divides although it loses much by self-censoring Adiga's irreverence for religion. But Bahrani makes one laudable decision regarding the written material at hand. Adiga's book projected men as the primary victims of poverty, exploited not just by their rich employers but also by their vulture-like female relatives. While there is truth in the depiction of men in poor families suffering greatly to marry off their sisters and cousins, the book failed to acknowledge that this is a burden placed on them by patriarchy and that women are the greatest sufferers in a caste-ridden patriarchal set-up. Adiga made it worse by not writing a single woman with substance in the book. Bahrani's screenplay, however, expands on Pinky's sketchy characterisation and brief presence in the novel, turns her into one of the story's primary characters, transforms her from the largely inconsiderate creature she is in the book to the most sensitive person in Ashok's family, and underlines her significance by casting a major star in the role.

The rewriting of Pinky is one of the nicest things about Bahrani's film. The other is Chopra Jonas who also happens to be one of The White Tiger's executive producers. The Bollywood star-turned-global-icon perfectly captures the internal conflicts of this spirited woman who is horrified by the regressive attitudes she sees all around her and mortified by her own part in the mistreatment of Balram.

The supporting cast are uniformly solid, though none quite as good as Kamlesh Gill who completely erases her natural charm, exemplified by her performance in 2012's Vicky Donor, to play Balram's nasty grandmother here.

Adarsh Gourav is, for the most part, convincing as the conflicted, perennially angry Balram, but his exaggerated accent in the opening lines of his narration is a blatant bow to the Hollywood notion of how Indians speak English - either he forgets it or intentionally tones it down as the narrative progresses.

The White Tiger movie review Pallid superficial and made with one eye on the Western gaze the other on the Hindutva mob

Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Rajkummar Rao in The White Tiger

The language of the film itself often sounds strained. Although this is an English-Hindi film, considerable portions of the dialogues are not written the way conversations would occur in the places in which the story is set. A real-life Pinky may well occasionally dip into English while speaking to Balram, but would she really tell him her parents ran a "bodega" in the US? As improbable are the Delhi drivers conversing with each other in English when they have a choice not to do so.

For the record, much as I enjoyed the space given to Pinky by the screenplay, it needs to be pointed out that the only persons of privilege in this film who avidly oppose social discrimination are both US returnees: Ashok studied abroad, Pinky lived there almost all her life. But of course! For where else might Asians find enlightenment but in the Centre of the Universe i.e. the West?

Initially, barring that cringe-worthy opening, The White Tiger is interesting and funny, but it is soon done in by its blinkered view of caste, its awkwardly handled India-China connection and its overriding lack of authenticity. It even slips up on tiny details — in at least one instance by departing from the book.

Whatever its failings may have been, Adiga's The White Tiger was worth reading for its disgust towards Indian social divides, its refusal to mince words and that question, "Do we loathe our masters behind the facade of love - or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?"

The Great Indian Rooster Coop and Balram Halwai deserve better than this occasionally satisfying but largely pallid, superficial Hollywood adaptation.

The White Tiger is streaming on Netflix.

Rating: **1/2

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