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“Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.” So says a driver who realizes he has one chance to break out of the master-servant paradigm that has defined his life and kept him trapped in poverty.
Balram (Adarsh Gourav) narrates the story of his success via a series of emails written to Wen Jiabao ahead of the Chinese Premier’s visit to Bangalore in 2010. Ever the opportunist, Balram hopes to align himself with what he believes is the world’s rising power, as the influence of the West recedes.
The emails paint a clear picture of how social, economic, and political systems in India concentrate power and wealth. Balram’s family comes from a sweet-making caste in a small village north of Delhi. A third of the money everyone in town earns goes to the landlord, a stern man called The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) with a violent son known as The Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). Apart from a few rupees for incidentals, the rest of the money earned by the men in Balram’s family goes to Balram’s grandmother (Kamlesh Gill) — the only member of the large clan who doesn’t go hungry.
Through patience, observation, and quick wit, Balram secures himself a position as the driver for The Stork’s youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), recently returned from New York with his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). The gig allows Balram to finally utilize the English language skills he picked up as a precocious kid. Ashok, Pinky, and Balram move to Delhi in order to facilitate some bribery on behalf of The Stork, with the threat that any misstep on Balram’s part could cause The Stork to murder Balram’s whole family.
In Delhi, it becomes apparent how the entrenched master-servant system limits the imaginations of those involved. Ashok doesn’t like when his brother and father hit Balram, but doesn’t try to make Balram a full-fledged employee with rights either. The expectation is that Balram will work hard for Ashok’s family for minimal pay until they decide to get rid of him. That’s it.
Even Balram starts to see how his upbringing has filtered his expectations. When Pinky asks him what he wants to do in life, it seems like an absurd question. He already achieved his goal of getting out of working at his family’s tea shop when he got this job. What else is there? Even if Balram had a bigger dream, he has no money or connections. The only people he knows who could help him are Ashok and his family, and they’ve made it clear they’d never do that.
Dangerous circumstances force Balram to choose whether to continue viewing himself as disposable the way that his bosses do, or to assert his right to self-determination. In order to overcome what he calls the “servant mindset,” Balram needs the fortitude of the rarest of creatures: the white tiger.
Director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Arvind Adiga’s novel is thorough in its world building but lets Balram’s particular viewpoint set the tone of the film. Balram is a loner, so something like collective action never crosses his mind. His choices, for good or ill, make sense for who he is, especially as defined by Gourav’s terrific lead performance.
Chopra Jonas — who co-produced the film — hits it out of the park as Pinky, a woman who wants to do good but doesn’t have the full context for the situation or the agency to make significant changes even if she did. With Rao’s history of playing likeable characters, it’s all the more frustrating when Ashok won’t stand up to his dad and brother to demand better treatment for Balram. Then again, he’s as much a product of his environment as everyone else, which is exactly the problem The White Tiger examines.