A poor young man in India who longs for a life where the grass is greener. A stark but teeming portrait of the squalid underbelly of Indian poverty. A one-in-a-million shot that could catapult our hero to the place of his dreams. “The White Tiger,” written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, is a movie that clearly owes a major debt — maybe its very existence — to “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning fable of a former Mumbai street kid looking to flip fortune on its head. Yet Bahrani (“99 Homes,” “Goodbye Solo”), adapting a novel by Aravind Adiga, is no feel-good fantasist. “The White Tiger” taps engagingly into the rags-to-riches, Horatio-Alger-on-the-Ganges mythology that made “Slumdog Millionaire” a global sensation, but the movie also recognizes the earlier film as a fairy tale, positioning itself in key ways as the anti-“Slumdog.”
That, of course, may be related to how much things have changed since the economic meltdown of 2008. In an India — a world — where the one percent are now widely viewed as steamrolling the rest of us, making the leap from rags to riches look too easy could be seen as a moral and aesthetic cheat.
“The White Tiger” has a tasty flavor of light-meets-dark ambivalence that’s established in the opening scene, a joyride that freeze-frames on disaster. The hero, Balram (Adarsh Gourav), clad in glittery costume finery, is in the back seat of a car that’s speeding through the late-night streets of Delhi in 2007. In the front seat are his boss, the wealthy hipster Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), who is driving. They all seem to be in the midst of a drunken carousing party until a little kid, out of nowhere, zips in front of the car. That’s when the action halts in horror.
Before we return to this night of decadence gone wrong, the film flashes back to tell the story of how Balram, a kid from the hardscrabble village of Laxmangarh, forges his path to success. He starts with absolutely nothing. Yet what’s exotic about Balram as a character isn’t that he comes from India’s vast servant class; it’s that his story is really about the psychology of servitude. Balram excels in school, but to help his large family survive he’s forced to drop out and scrape for a living. When he fastens onto the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), a wealthy landlord who fleeces the locals, and talks his way into becoming a driver for him, we think, “Good! The first step up the ladder.” Balram, in his smiley courteous way, has an instinct for how to play people, how to flatter them and make himself look saintly.
That ability, though, is also presented as a kind of internalized masochistic neurosis. Balram tells us that India once had a thousand castes, but now, in essence, there are just two: the haves and the have-nothings. He likens the plight of the great horde of servants to roosters in a coop, waiting with docile obedience for their heads to be chopped off. As the film presents it, members of the servant class in India — i.e., the vast majority of the country — are so trapped in their state of dependence that they’re living a kind of everyday Marxist version of Stockholm syndrome, surviving by being overly grateful for the very lowliness of their station. Gourav’s performance as Balram is a small marvel. He’s charismatic in a nearly silent way, and he lets us see how the reflex to obey — not to up his salary but to ask for less of one, to bow and scrape before employers he views as masters — has been programmed into him.
Yet Balram’s eyes dance with hidden dreams, and “The White Tiger” is the story of how he deprograms himself. That means walking a tightrope between compassion and calculation, selflessness and ruthlessness. Balram is a pious Hindu whose heart goes out to the poor people he spies on the street (after all, he’s one of them), yet he also views them as the rabble he must rise out of by setting himself apart. He’s able to do that because he’s the “white tiger” of his family — a once-in-a-generation animal with the gift of transcending his circumstances. The movie is about how, beneath his outwardly pleasing and placid surface, Balram lives in a state of constant maneuvering. He plays up to Ashok, the younger son of a family of hustlers who bribe government officials to get out of paying their taxes (Rao plays him like Liev Schreiber in Tom Cruise’s “Color of Money” hair), only to learn, in a shocking scene, that his loyalty will be repaid with the command for Balram to take a terrible fall.
“The White Tiger” is a tale of beating the steepest odds, and for much of the film Bahrani is in full, boisterous command as a storyteller. He captures how a society is embodied in its smallest interactions: the way a rival driver Balram must first defeat is made vulnerable by having to hide his Muslim faith; or the parasitical cynicism of the servants Balram shares living quarters with in a parking garage; or the cutthroat elitism of the Stork and his family. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, as Ashok’s Brooklyn-raised wife, brings a wild note of American freedom to the role of a feminist who can’t quite fathom how mired in the dark ages the family she married into can be.
Yet even as Balram’s rise makes for a touching and fascinating odyssey, the film sets him up (in a framing device) as a tech entrepreneur looking to lead India into a global future that “lies with the yellow man and the brown man.” And that leap — from docile naïf to worldly mover and shaker — is more symbolic than convincing. “The White Tiger” isn’t a fairy tale, but by the end the movie still leaves you feeling that it has made a wish into a command.