Being acclaimed for his works of class struggle in “Man Push Cart”, “Chop Shop” and “99 Homes,” Iranian American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani new work “The White Tiger,” the director’s first film set outside of the US, has a terrific empathy on the global underclass. Adapting from Indian author Aravind Adiga’s (director Bahrani’s close friend when they both studied at Columbia University) Booker Prize-winning novel, “The White Tiger” focuses on the divide between the haves and have-nots in modern India, ending in an unsettling vengeance of rage-to-riches.

Enters Balram (played by Indian singer-songwriter Adarsh Gourav as his first feature leading role), an entrepreneur who narrates his life story of how he started working as a slave and became a powerful businessman. He grew up in a poor urban, where his grandmother pulled him out of education and made him work at the family tea shop. His father then died of tuberculosis, and his brother was forced into a marriage arranged by his grandmother. Despite the poverty, Balram sees himself as a white tiger, a rare animal only be born once in a generation, and the only way to escape the lower-castle life is to move up.

Unlike the majority of poor – accept their fate and eaten by the rich (labels as “roosters cage” in the film) – Balram aggressively fights for the chance to serve a local landlord named Stork (played by Bollywood director and actor Mahesh Manjrekar) and his second son Ashok (played by Bollywood legend Rajkummar Rao) as their personal driver.

Does the wealthy being nice because they are rich? Or they are nice and rich by nature? That’s the burning question in Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece “Parasite.” Compare to his despotic father and older brother, Ashok, who just returned from America, and his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra with her tremendous star power) are more liberal and treat Balram more like a friend instead of a slave. Nonetheless, the pride and generosity the couple show are still inherent in their privilege. They praise Balram for living in the “real India” experience and see his lifestyle as from a different world (very different indeed) with stereotype.

Then, on Pinky birthday, her drunken joyride ends up with her accidentally hits a young girl. The deadly accident brings their relationship into a dark turn when the family asks Balram to sign the confession and take the blame. The betrayal lights up his fire of vengeance, and the film leads us into a dangerous adventure from here.

“In India, there are only two kinds of people: those with big bellies and those with small bellies. I was trapped, and don’t believe for a second there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it.” This line from “The White Tiger” addresses the Oscar-winning hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also depicts the underclass struggle. “The White Tiger” climbing-to-the-top-journey turns the “Slumdog-Millionaire-fairy-tale” into something sharper and colder. Bahrani’s arresting visual style stares at the rising capitalism in India while keeping us at the edge of the seats. For Balram, there is no game show that can take him to the top, he’s the white tiger in the jungle with a strong survival instinct. This tiger’s roar, after all, is a heartbreaking life story of surviving in an economic and political system that lacks morality. 

GRADE: B

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  • Distributor: Netflix
  • Production: ARRAY Filmworks, Lava Media, Netflix, and Noruz Films
  • Director: Ramin Bahrani
  • Writer: Ramin Bahrani
  • Producer: Ramin Bahrani and Mukul Deora
  • Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra, Mahesh Manjrekar, and Vijay Maurya
  • “The White Tiger” available on Netflix on Jan 22, 2021

Read the review in Chinese

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