Despite being a dizzyingly diverse nation of more than 1.3 billion people, movies set in India, probably thanks to the Bollywood formula and Slumdog Millionaire, still carry with them an oddly specific set of expectations. It’s hard not to expect exuberant expression, vivid colors, music, and a vague kind of plucky optimism driving it all. In White Tiger, director Ramin Bahrani (adapting a 2008 bestseller by Aravind Adiga) plays on those expectations to deliver something else entirely: an exploration of class, caste, culture, and capitalism that isn’t particularly sunny and definitely doesn’t have any dancing.
It’s hard not to invite Parasite comparisons when your movie is about a poor striver who schemes his way into a job driving for a rich guy. White Tiger is the rare film that isn’t rendered pointless by the analogy. It uses as its framing device a letter from Balram, played by Adarsh Gourav, to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who has come to India to meet young entrepreneurs. As the action takes place via flashback, Balram relates the story to Jiabao, in the style of Portnoy’s Complaint/About Schmidt/Life Of Pi, of how he, a poor kid from the sticks, eventually came to be one of India’s foremost entrepreneurs. Like Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, Balram learned many important lessons from growing up poor, but as he explains it, in real life, one doesn’t go from servant to master just by getting on a game show.
India is a complex place, a place essentially defined by its complexity, but luckily Balram has packed plenty of analogies to help us understand — er, to help Wen Jiabao understand. He says over and over that despite 1,000 castes, India has basically two worlds: the light and the dark; two classes — master and servant; two castes: those with fat bellies and those with thin bellies; all of which exist inside the chicken coop of Indian society. It’s like a chicken coop, Balram explains, because Indians are the only people who, chicken-like, simply watch docilely while their compatriots are beheaded and chopped apart for supper, awaiting their own inevitable fate without complaint or attempt to escape.
Balram, obviously, comes from the dark world, the servant class, a caste known for making sweets. He’s a child prodigy whose headmaster promises will one day get a scholarship to a prestigious institution in Delhi. But, subverting expectations right out of the gate, this isn’t to be a story about the lucky ones, the exceptions to the rule, those scholarship kids who go onto prosper by following the rules.
Instead, Balram’s father gets tuberculosis and dies, his family can’t afford his tuition, and Balram is forever cursed with only three years of formal education. The way we learn of Balram’s father’s illness is illustrative of how Bahrani (99 Homes, Chop Shop) plays on and subverts expectations. If you see a movie character cough blood into a handkerchief it’s pretty much a guarantee that he or she will die before the end. Bahrani’s twist is to shoot a close up of phlegmy blood spat onto an unpaved street, rather than the usual genteel hanky. This in the midst of a smash-cut-to-funeral montage. (Smash-cut-to-funeral is by far my favorite cinematic shorthand device).
Cursed to a life serving at his grandmother’s tea shop (another possible Slumdog allusion, if you remember Jamal’s “chaiwalla” days), living in poverty and having his life dictated to him by his older relatives, Balram is determined to break out of the chicken coop. He knows the best way to climb the servant ladder is to serve the highest master, so he borrows money from his family for driving lessons (delivered memorably by a Sikh who tells him that warrior castes make the best drivers because driving is warfare and teaches Balram to yell “sister fucker!” out the window) and schemes his way into a job driving for the local lords — a family of coal magnates living high on the hog who accept only bribes and deference from people like Balram.
Balram ends up driving for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the youngest son of the family patriarch (“The Stork,” played by Mahesh Manjrekar) and ostensibly the most progressive of the family — who has married an outspoken American, Pinky Madam, played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas (she also produced). Just as in Parasite, Ashok and Pinky’s masks of surface-level tolerance and politeness frequently fall away (As Parasite would say, “she’s nice because she’s rich, hell if I had all this money I’d be nice too!”). And, just as in other great class-parable stories like Parasite and Y Tu Mamá Tambien, prejudices are usually manifested in the most visceral distinctions, like bad breath and stained teeth and body odor and an itchy crotch. It all exists to provide plausible deniability, that the reason the aristocrats dislike you isn’t your low birth but your bad manners.
All the while, Balram, in an understated but unforgettable performance by Gourav, offers ironic commentary on everything from globalization (“I think the days of the white man are over, the yellow man and the brown man are the leaders of tomorrow”) to democracy to being a good servant (“a good servant must know his masters from end to end, from lips to anus”).
White Tiger subverts expectations right up until the very end, self-consciously commenting on what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. In that way White Tiger allows other stories to define it maybe more than it should.
It doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as Parasite, which manages to exist on a level of surreal and hyperreal that makes its foundational exploration of class not just smart and enjoyable but singular and transcendent. Yet White Tiger may also surpass Parasite for subtle wit. If Bahrani hasn’t quite mastered the perfect parable, he does have an almost Napoleon Dynamite-esque flair for visual irony. And if I’m comparing The White Tiger to Parasite too much, it’s only because this year’s crop of awards movies largely don’t hold a candle to it.