First, I’d like to start by adoring Netflix, mainly because of the streaming service’s ability to promote purposeful content like “The White Tiger”, which in my opinion, is a movie that would have struggled to gain the attention and recognition that it deserves, not because it isn’t a great movie, but because not many distribution platforms would have wanted to take this on. For the film director, Ramin Bahrani, who has directed some award-winning but lesser known works like Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), Goodbye Solo (2008), and 99 Homes (2015), this is his most publicized film. With that said, it’s safe for me to say ‘The White Tiger’ is an amazing movie and I’ll tell you why.
The movie is adapted from Aravind Adiga’s critically acclaimed novel that dissects India’s caste system. It tells a story of an ambitious ‘low-born’ Indian man that uses wit, cunningness and other devices at his disposal to escape from what the antihero, Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav) describes as “endemic poverty’, to becoming a successful tech entrepreneur in Bangalore (India’s Silicon Valley).
The first few scenes of the film show little Balram in his pauperized hometown, narrating in vivid detail, the level of poverty that exists in the small village and how everyone in it have their faith resigned to remaining destitute, and can’t even fathom the idea of dreaming a little bigger. Balram, in his narration, likens the villagers to roosters at a slaughterhouse, ‘caged and close to death’ but never seeming to want to escape. Balram was not ‘everyone’, he wanted more, and always kept his ears and eyes open, seeking opportunity.
A few years later, when the village’s landlord nicknamed The Stork, who lived in the city came in to collect his fleece customary payment, which was a third of all of the villagers’ earnings despite him being an already wealthy man from his coal business, Balram saw an opportunity. He eavesdropped on a conversation that hinted at The Stork’s youngest son, Ashok (played by Rajkummar Rao) who had just moved back to India after studying in the USA needing a driver.
Undeterred by not knowing the basics about cars or driving, Balram is able to convince his family by cunning his grandmother; promising to direct all of his earnings to her and the family and making her the envy of the entire village when he lands the driver position. The grandmother entertains the idea and gets him the ₹300 (Rupees) he’s asked for to move to the city and take driving lessons. With the money secured, he moves to the city, takes the driving lessons, and then heads over to The Stork’s villa where he sweet-mouths his way to becoming their driver, after taking The Stork and his sons, including Ashok on a test drive and coming out clean after a background check is conducted on him.
A few weeks and months pass and Balram begins to get frustrated that he is not doing much driving, rather, he is resigned to doing household chores, like washing cars and cleaning rooms in the villa because he is the Number 2 driver. In his plot to oust the current Head driver, he begins to dig dirt on his competition, he learns that his rival is a Muslim, and has been hiding it for years; The Stork and his family do not like Islam as a religion, knowing this, Balram brings this new piece of information to the attention of The Stork and current Number 1 driver is fired, making Balram Head.
For the next couple of months as head driver, Balram begins to learn about the family he works for and their business. Driving them to meetings, he is privy to information by proxy and is aware of all the shady dealings and bribery schemes the family is involved in. He seems content and happy just working for the family, even though, most times, all members of the family treat him in a less than humane way, with the exception of Ashok’s wife, Pinky (played by Priyanka Chopra), who always tried to encourage him to dream bigger and want better for himself.
In the movie, you really begin to see Balram’s devious, mean, calculated, and morally reprehensible side come out, even Balram admits to this in the movie saying “My story gets much darker from here”. It occurs after The Stork, in the presence of his sons, wheedles him into signing a false confession admitting to a hit and run of a child, an accident committed by Pinky, who insisted on driving both Ashok and Balram after her drunken night out. Luckily for Balram, no one reported the case and the Police did not investigate. He was in the clear, but only for now, he knew that the family now possessed hardened evidence that could see his life over at any time.
The accident took a toll on Pinky, and without Ashok’s or the family’s knowledge, she fled the country one night, begging Balram to drop her off at the airport. On alighting the vehicle, Pinky then handed over an envelope full of cash to Balram, money which seemed to be given to him, as penance for all of the guilt she felt.
Balram continued working as a driver for The Stork and his family, not out of his freewill but because the family had him on the ropes, watching it, you could see his frustrations and animosity towards the family members grow as nothing really changed about how he was being treated by his employers. He maintained to do his work diligently as the family also continued to partake in shady business dealings with politicians and other public officials, and as usual, Balram kept his eyes and ears to the ground.
The last straw for Balram, was overhearing talks by his employers getting a replacement driver. Now, he knew he was working on borrowed time. His new mission was set to get all the money he could lay his hands on and move. He began talking to other drivers, getting their takes on how they made money from their ‘Masters’, he learned to falsify invoices on repairs on vehicle, resell fuel in the cars to black marketers and use the cars at his disposal as a cab at night, Balram made some extra money, but it was nothing near what he’d need to stay away from trouble when they eventually let him go, especially now that his own family had sent his little cousin to come stay with him in the city and learn to be a driver as well.
Ashok had been made the family’s errand boy for paying bribes to politicians, and Balram had watched him over the years as his driver, deliver cash bribes to different public servants, the monies on each of these trips were what would take him years and maybe even decades to acquire, he became more furious at the thought of this and devised a plan to steal the next stash of cash to be delivered.
The last Balram/Ashok trip would take place on a rainy night, where the ‘Master’ proceeds to make another bribe payment to a corrupt politician. Balram has the heist all planned out; fake a vehicle fault, lure Ashok out to help fix the problem, stab and kill his prey, and then take flight with all the money. The plan is executed to sinister perfection.
After literally securing the bag, Balram proceeds to escaping to the city of Bangalore, he had heard from his newly dead and former employer, on how the city was the future for innovation and opportunity, and as the opportunist that he was he went there, together with his little cousin, imposed upon him. To get started in Bangalore, a couple of things would first need to be done, you see Balram ask himself “What would Mr. Ashok do?” and there, he finds his answers. The succeeding scene then shows him walking into a Police station to meet an obviously high ranking level officer, who he then lays a bag of cash to and says “I just wanted to make a small offering of my gratitude to you”, a little perplexed, the officer responds saying “for what?”, Balram says “For all the good you will do for me”. He had learned that the system was corrupt and would use this to his advantage.
Balram is strategic and intentional about his requests, he strikes out the police trail off his back for the murder of Ashok and gets the Police to arrest the many cab drivers that currently operate in the heart of Bangalore’s financial district with bogus allegations, all of this is done to enable him create a cab hailing service that caters to the district, and eventually more locations. He names this company ‘White Tiger Drivers’.
The movie tells a story on class-divide, and imbibes subtle sequences of dark comedy, similar to the 2019 Academy award-winning Parasite, and this is a comparison I do not make lightly. Watching this, you’ll develop a love-hate relationship for the main character Balram, where, despite his morally questionable antics, you’ll still empathise with him and want to see him to succeed.
The White Tiger comes highly recommended on my MUST watch list.