Written & Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Ramin Bahrani was once dubbed the next great American filmmaker by beloved film critic Roger Ebert, and with good reason. To start his career, Bahrani examined small, extremely American stories that dealt with poverty, hard work and the American Dream. Such luminous films as Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo were beautifully shot, intimately acted, and full of genuine emotion, communicated deftly by a young American superstar in Ramin Bahrani. In recent years, he has faded from attention from the film community, producing underseen, and possibly underappreciated, films such as At Any Price, 99 Homes, and Fahrenheit 451. I’m not entirely sure why his career took this path after such a dynamite start that certainly would have indicated a long, upward trajectory career to the top of Hollywood elite. Perhaps he was not interested in playing the games and participating in the necessary politics, choosing instead to remain true to his art. But regardless of what the case may be, it’s nice to see him return with The White Tiger, which is perhaps that higher profile project that never fully catapulted him to the mainstream.
The White Tiger is a bestselling novel by Indian writer Aravind Adiga, which another in a line of reputable releases by the streaming service Netflix, who has made serious gains as a top studio in both quality and awards consideration in recent years. The film follows the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a poor Indian boy in a low caste who works his way up from a rural village to the big time as a driver for a wealthy family (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra) in Bangalore. While still living in relative destitute terms, he feels he is living the high life in the good graces of the family as compared to his previous life. But after a fateful night sees him taking the blame so his wealthy and respectable employers can walk free, Balram reconsiders his status in life and how he might best utilize his newfound position in life to climb even higher on the social rung in India.
The lazy comparison would be to Slumdog Millionaire, a film I still like quite a bit even if recent opinion seems to have cooled on the once indie darling from 2008. Both are films set in India produced by the Western world which turn a light on the poor and impoverished caste in India and how its heroes subverted the system to come to riches. They’re both beautifully filmed, full of heart and sympathy for their protagonists, and feature snappy, propulsive editing and filmmaking, but I think ultimately the films are saying very different things. Ramin Bahrani has a very personal and empathetic touch to his filmmaking. And while his budget and talent have both grown considerably in the production of this film compared to his greatest work from the first decade of this century, his vision and style has not.
Bahrani’s signature is all over this film, and as with his early successes, he communicates both his style and story through a strong central performance, this time from unknown (to me) Adarsh Gourav, who is full of charisma, sympathy and emotion, playing into the fun of the film, the gentle nature of his character, and ultimately his troubled social standing. The entire film hinges on the performance, as Bahrani relies very heavily on this central character to set up the story to unfold. Certainly both Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra as the two supporting characters contribute a lot as well, but the film goes as Gourav goes. His wry sense of humor, joie de vivre, as well as dark realization that the system is still taking incredible advantage of him even as his status in life is rising all come together to give a fully realized rendering of who Balram is, the struggles he has gone through, and the adversity yet to come.
As with any Bahrani film, it’s not all sunshine and roses for our lead character. Bahrani paints him with shades of gray, giving humanity to his brokenness, to his brightness, to his flaws. In this way, it differs greatly from Slumdog Millionaire‘s mostly saccharine approach to overcoming poverty in India. There is a darkness here, hidden beneath the slick cinematography, sharp art direction, snappy dialogue and breakneck pace at times, a darkness that shares a story with a New York City street vendor, a Latino boy working in an auto repair shop, or an immigrant taxi driver. Over all these years, Bahrani is still one of America’s greatest filmmaker’s, with a penchant for sympathy for flawed characters. The White Tiger is just his latest.