A child is run over in the opening moments of The White Tiger. A drunk couple drives their Pajero down Sardar Patel Marg in the darkness as Punjabi MC blares on the radio. And I thought to myself, "Is this the most Delhi movie ever?"
It could be. Unlike Mumbai, Delhi's cinematic potential remains untapped. Possibly because Mumbai is the city of dreams, its image as a 'mayanagri' is more in line with cinema's inherent hopefulness.
Watch the trailer of "The White Tiger" here
In Mumbai, the rich can never hide behind their privilege — poverty is always a stone's throw away, and perpetually within sight. This duality was captured magnificently in recent films such as Gully Boy and Serious Men. But in Delhi, a city of ghettos, it is possible for the privileged to live on their ivory towers and still remain oblivious about the world below, swept as it is underneath a carpet of trees and smog. Chaiwallahs can become millionaires in Mumbai, that's what the movies have taught us. In Delhi, they get run over on the streets.
Based on Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger is a cynical movie -- an angry antithesis to the crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire. That it has been directed by a foreigner, Ramin Bahrani, is somewhat fitting. Although the situation is changing, with Serious Men and Sir, two other films about servitude that released in the same year, mainstream Indian filmmakers generally lack the cultural perspective to tackle relevant themes such as casteism and the oppression of minorities in their own backyard. But also, the book is literally dedicated to Bahrani — he was friends with Adiga in college. Imagine my surprise when I learned that he'd be shooting a film in Faridabad.
This isn't the first time that the filmmaker has shown a fascination for these ideas, either. Through a filmography that prompted the iconic film critic Roger Ebert to hail him as the 'new great American director', Bahrani has always championed the voiceless. He continues this crusade, which began in his best film — Man Push Cart — in The White Tiger, when he hands a megaphone and a knife to a character who has been bound and gagged his entire life.
Born in Bihar and bred to do the bidding of others, Balram Halwai's story is set into motion when his visibly ailing father dies because of systemic corruption.
And so, in the first of many instances that will remind you of Parasite, Balram decides to latch onto the wealthiest person in sight, and seek employment as his driver in Delhi. In doing so, he embarks on a journey of upward mobility that ends just as violently as director Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning masterpiece.
It's a perverted twist on the Disney movie trope, but The White Tiger is, after all, no less a fantasy than Aladdin or The Lion King.
American kids grow up believing they can be president. But in India, aspirations, like so many of its people, are modest. The struggle for most Indians isn't to climb the social ladder, but to maintain their position on it. Through a poisonous cocktail of fear and religion, we are indoctrinated early in life to accept our stations, constantly reminded that there is always going to be someone above us, waiting to pounce, and someone below, prepared to be pounced at.
Balram makes a similar analogy in the film, when he compares 99.9% of India's population to roosters trapped in a coop. They can smell the blood, he says, they know what fate has in store for them. But not one of them tries to escape.
To him, everyone's an animal of some sort. A corrupt politician is 'the Stork', his eldest son is 'the Mongoose'. And he's the rooster who dares to break out.
It's a star-making performance by newcomer Adarsh Gourav, who not only manages to grab the proverbial bull by the horns, but also reins it in. He's an Angry Young Man for post-Modi India, much like what Amitabh Bachchan was for the Emergency generation — an embodiment of rage, restlessness and rebellion directed at the establishment.
Not once did I have a problem with the film's decision to have Balram (and several other characters) speak in English — unusual, if you understand the nuances of Indian society. A similar approach, if you recall, was so grating in the recent A Suitable Boy.
The reason why this strategy works in The White Tiger is largely down to the writing — A Suitable Boy was never engaging enough to stop you from wondering about these tertiary details — and Gourav's performance. The young actor makes the astute choice to go browner, if that's a thing, when he is talking to his 'masters', Ashok and Pinky, played by Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra. He uses a more urbane accent in his narration, which in the film's timeline takes place much later.
Unfortunately, Rao, an otherwise outstanding actor, appears to be lost at sea. His character, Ashok, grew up in India, and moved abroad after having already cemented his speech patterns. His accent, I'd assume, is largely a put-on. But Rao is too preoccupied with the pressure of sounding American, and his visible discomfort gets in the way of his performance. He had similar problems in Hansal Mehta's Omertà, in which he played a British terrorist. Ashok's spinelessness should've been subtly sandwiched into Rao's performance, but he ultimately comes across as the sort of guy who'd wave an Indian flag at the storming of the Capitol years later.
Accents are a breeze for PC, though. And she's excellent as the feisty Pinky, who seems to be in a constant state of compromise. It's her best performance since Dil Dhadakne Do, thanks in no small part to Pinky being the most well defined character she's played in years.
Fuelled by a punchy hip-hop soundtrack and a frenetic energy, The White Tiger is a creepy chronicle of a newly globalised nation struggling, like Balram, with an inbuilt inferiority complex. We keep telling ourselves that we're tigers, but really, we're just tigers that're chasing their own tails.