Synopsis: An ambitious Indian driver uses his wit and cunning to escape from poverty and rise to the top.
Stars: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vijay Maurya, Mahesh Pillai, Nalneesh Neel, Aaron Wan, Vedant Sinha, Abhishek Khandekar, Solanki Diwakar, Ram Naresh Diwakar, Harshit Mahawar, Sanket Shanware
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: When examining a movie, I’m finding more often that narrative structure is becoming more of a hot button issue for me. How a filmmaker chooses to tell their story is a key indicator not just in how each particular project will establish tone from the start but on a larger scale the creation of their own future calling card for style. Obviously, the best kind of auteurs are those that never let you pin them down – their style is constantly being reenvisioned by the work that is in front of them yet they manage to still put their stamp on it in a way that is uniquely theirs. Director Ramin Bahrani is one of those creative-minded people who, based on his list of credits so far, isn’t content to being boxed into a certain corner. That has allowed him to make films that might not be commercial successes but are usually followed by a trail of good notices from reputable outlets.
Standing to score his biggest breakthrough yet with his newest film, Bahrani has adapted Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger for Netflix where it premieres as a streaming title on January 22. It’s easy to see why Bahrani would be drawn to this Dickens-by-way-of-Mumbai rags to riches tale that reveals a surprisingly sinister dark edge in its third act. With a flair for the dramatic and flights of fancy both fun and fearsome, the movie is almost always angling for some higher level. There are ample opportunities to stretch the medium of storytelling by jumping around in time from the present to the past and allowing Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), our older and wiser narrator look back at his younger self and recount the story of how he left his tiny village and came to the big city to seek his fortune.
The film begins in the middle of Halwai’s journey, on a fateful night of celebration with Halwai a backseat passenger enjoying himself as Pinky Madam, the wife of his boss, careens down the vacant streets of the city as her husband Ashok looks on from the seat next to her. What happens next changes the course of the lives of all three…but it will take over an hour of Halwai-narrated catch-up to rejoin the trio to see what transpired. During this time, we see India through the very one-sided eyes of Halwai and come to understand that success is determined on the spirit of the individual, not on any opportunities that just fall out of the blue.
A once promising student held back from furthering his education by family obligation, Halwai grows to resent his family trade and takes the first opportunity he can to flee the small town in favor of a larger city that better represents his interests. Joining the staff of the very same family that are imperious land barons in his village, he becomes the driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the son of the head boss. As his allegiance with Ashok and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Isn’t It Romantic) grows, the ties with his family diminish and soon Halwai is rejecting many of the tenets of morality in favor of getting further ahead with his own plans for the future.
In essence, there’s not a lot in the bones of The White Tiger that we haven’t seen told numerous times before in different cultures and periods throughout time. There’s always some poor person that longs for a better life tempted away from the “good” by the “bad” who eventually makes the choice to turn their back on the right way for their own advancement…often to disastrous results. The same is (mostly) true in The White Tiger and it’s why the movie, as lively as it is, never feels like the full meal is it clearly meant to be. At best, it’s a satisfying treat with the occasional energy boost from a charming star and a director that keeps things interesting visually, if not plot-wise.
With the plot being more than a little also-ran, the key factor to The White Tiger being worth the time is Gourav’s pretty astounding work as the boy with big plans that becomes a man willing to do most anything to get what he wants. At the time, I found the performance to be a solid effort and definitely regarded him the strongest player of the group but the longer I sit thinking the more I see just how big of an arc Gourav took Halwai over the course of the film. The physicality changes as well as Halwai’s understanding of his surroundings and ability to survey a situation, especially after a pivotal shift when he realizes the only one looking out for him is him reveal a detailed character that has been realized and the results are fascinating. The rest of the cast, including Chopra Jonas who also serves as a producer, handle the twists in tone well, a benefit to the director being able to keep things largely under control so the satirical comedy aimed squarely at India’s class system that forms the backbone of The White Tiger doesn’t tip the scales over to cartoonish farce.
Stretched too long by a lengthy run time, The White Tiger is a rare flower that loses steam rather quickly at the outset and struggles to regain its footing for a time that thankfully bounces back with a somber reminder of the consequences of trusting too much and wanting it all at the same time. I left the film respecting the story it was telling but wishing it was more efficient in its delivery, admiring the lead performance but thinking the entire movie shouldn’t have had to depend on Gourav for it to succeed, and hoping the director will continue to surprise us with future projects. I wouldn’t pounce on The White Tiger immediately, but it’s a movie to keep in your back pocket if this location and story speak to you.