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Poverty is a common theme in Ramin Bahrani’s films. His debut, Man Push Cart, follows an immigrant street vendor in New York City, while Chop Shop is about a boy eking out a living in a scrapyard. The empathy in these films is unusual; they show people at society’s fringes who rarely get the star treatment. Bahrani continues that tradition with his latest film, an adaptation of the Booker prize-winning novel The White Tiger, except there is a marked difference in its tone. While his early films were gentle, even soothing, Bahrani’s latest is misanthropic and cruel.
Adarsh Gourav plays Balram, the Dickensian hero who veers from poverty to success in modern India. Balram narrates the entire film, with his breathless voiceover offering bitter commentary on the details of his life. He is not exactly a reliable narrator, revising his story and doubling back to cover key episodes. An early obsession with the cosmopolitan Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his glamorous girlfriend Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) comes to define Balram’s life. Both Ashok and Pinky spent time in the United States, and their Western attitudes clash with India’s caste system. As their driver, Balram learns a lot about the way the world works—and that he should not be content with his fate. But his newfound ambition simmers into barely contained resentment.
Although there is room for some nuance and social commentary, no character in The White Tiger is especially likable. Ashok and Pinky are goofy and frivolous, with only a dim understanding of how they should interact with the help. How and when they break the rules—treating Balram like an equal only when it is convenient for them—is where The White Tiger finds its tension. Meanwhile, Balram rationalizes his worst behavior, creating an internal code that will allow him to escape poverty. He is a familiar literary archetype, although Bahrani’s script and Gourav’s performance never find the right balance of sympathy or charisma. Instead, Balram seems is sneering and awkward, like a teenager who tries to act tough and fails.
There are also some facets of the adaptation that do not translate to the screen. In the book, Balram confesses his crimes to the premier of China, and Bahrani’s attempt to recreate that framing device leaves more questions than answers. This vision of India—one full of desperate, angry people who curse each other and beg for mercy in equal measure—curdles in a screen adaptation. The depiction is one thing in literature, where the reader’s imagination can create fascinating little details. The literal nature of a film means we see ugliness that cannot be smoothed over. Perhaps The White Tiger is difficult to adapt, like some Cormac McCarthy novels: It depicts venom that only can comfortably exist in our mind’s eye.
The overarching narrative never quite comes together, although there are individual moments where the movie has something to say. Out of sheer frustration, for example, Balram curses an old woman in the street who begs him for money. He has nothing to give her except his clothes, and spurns her while creating a scene. For all his frustration in that moment, there are others where he is demure and slovenly to his superiors, implying he understands India’s social mores down in his bones. By narrowing down its focus on simple interactions and their deeper implications, The White Tiger can approach how class divides are maddening.
There is satire and allegory in The White Tiger. Balram is a scoundrel, but he’s also an everyman, so his story is meant as a weak stand-in for his entire nation. This conceit requires a shared baseline: you cannot properly critique something unless everyone first understands it. The White Tiger tries to teach American audiences about Balram’s India before it gets to its point. That leads to a cumulative lack of narrative inertia, a problem that Bahrani never quite overcomes. If a viewer is curious about all the references they missed, there is always the book.
The White Tiger is available to stream on Netflix starting January 22.