Started from the bottom, now we…
Howdy. Been a while hasn’t it? Yes, I’ve decided to take up writing once again after having some very significant developments in my life occur one after another. Mostly good, others just plain weird. But you’re not here to hear my life story, you want movie reviews. Given…the world as it is now in the year of our Lord Galactus Two-Thousand-Twenty-One, we’ll be posting reviews of recent streaming releases as well as a new segment for the website I’ll be debuting later this week. But for now, let’s check out The White Tiger, an exciting new movie that dropped on Netflix from the director of 99 Homes, one of my personal favorites.
We follow the life of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a peasant living in Laxmangarh, India with high aspirations of escaping his life of poverty. Which is no easy feat in India where the caste culture all but ensures the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich. Nonetheless, he finally finds a shot at a better life when he aspires to be the servant and chauffeur of Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), a wealthy heir to a coal baron who just got back from America with his new wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Despite being poor and not properly educated, Balram is a tenacious fellow and his desire to become an entrepreneur takes him on a very unexpected path filled with drama and comedy…okay mostly drama, but he takes a lot of it in stride.
The film is wonderfully directed by Ramin Bahrani, and it feels like a return to form for him after that disappointing Fahrenheit 451 remake on HBO. The White Tiger feels like a more lighthearted take on class struggle than his previous work in 99 Homes, but still goes into much darker and psychologically damaging places. Apparently, he’s been trying for a decade to get the movie made with American dollars (and apparently read the first draft of the original novel the movie was adapted from courtesy of the writer), but nobody wanted to take a chance on it…but hey, Netflix has “fuck you money” and an itching desire to get reputation with the Academy Awards. And after Parasite swept last awards season, Netflix was so sure they’d have a solid entry for 2020, were it not for the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Still, film politics aside, this is an artfully made movie. The pacing is on point, with barely any fat hanging off this piece. Which is impressive, given that the whole movie is being narrated by our protagonist three years into the future and yet you can’t help but feel nervous for Balram at every unfortunate turn he’s forced into. The narration actually enhances the experience as you like this confident, yet humble storyteller while he spins his yarn of woe. Rather than feeling miserable when awful things happen to Balram, the narrator is quick to liven the mood with gallows humor when he can. But thankfully this doesn’t go overboard and he’s very careful to allow dramatic moments to have their appropriate weight. With such a well-developed protagonist, The White Tiger is also able to offer some valuable commentary about society as well.
At its heart, the movie is fiercely critical of capitalism and the Indian caste system. For those unfamiliar with the latter, the movie will do a solid job of introducing you to this world. The critiques of capitalism will however give the movie more universal appeal and recognition for debates to spread. Although I no doubt will hear some corners of the Internet cry about the characters of The Stork and The Mongoose (nick names to two of the movie’s most detestable characters) being a bit cartoonishly evil, they still struck me as “realistic” in terms of their callous disregard for the underclass. The film doesn’t necessarily offer alternatives to either the caste system or capitalism, but instead focuses on the extreme methods it takes to escape poverty. And no the answer is not “pull yourself by the bootstraps”, it’s far more chilling.
But honestly, I would not have been invested in the film’s story and message were it not for the cast on display. Adarsh Gourav is a real force of nature in this movie, and you witness his metamorphosis from living dirt poor to becoming a successful entrepreneur. That’s not really a spoiler since the movie establishes he attained wealth at the start of the film, and believe me: you’re not ready for the depths Gourav’s character plunged into to attain said wealth. Gourav’s delivery from beginning to end was a powerhouse performance, and I’m going to be so pissed off months from now when he gets snubbed for a Best Actor nomination in favor of some old dude who’s been denied an award one too many times. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances, from producer Priyanka Chopra to Kamlish Gill as Balram’s grandmother. But the best supporting player is obviously Rajkummar Rao as Ashok. He plays such a clueless privileged little dunce who seriously can’t read the room to save his own life, that you honestly begin to pity him at some points. Which is critical, because it helps explain some of the lengths Balram goes to serve this dumb as rocks “master”.
It may be the start of 2021, but I have a high standard for movies coming out this year thanks to The White Tiger. While the theater may be closed to many of us due to this crippling pandemic, there are many more movies to watch. And I hope to keep checking them all out. With that, this movie gets a strong…