The White Tiger is a frantic yet darkly funny film about greed, poverty and class conflict in India in the early 2000s.
The film starts with a familiar premise. Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) leaves behind his family and rural village to follow his aspirations.
His aspiration, it turns out, is to become the driver of the son of his family’s landlord, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). It’s a job which he quickly gets.
But while working as a driver Balram begins to grapple with his position as a servant.
At the beginning of the film he describes being a servant as like being a “cockerel” in a cage before being slaughtered.
The cockerel knows what is going to happen to it but has no power to stop it.
And the film really pivots around that question.
Can Balram be content feeling powerless as a servant or can he rise to a position of wealth and power?
One of the many strengths of this film is the way it shows how people of different classes relate to one another. How each other’s lives feel alien.
Balram’s employers speak about him as if he isn’t there.
They think he’s stupid and blindly subservient.
When Ashok visits Balram’s tiny room without windows he’s surprised at the conditions that he lives in—despite being the one who creates the reality of his life.
For a large part of the film Balram is a very good servant. He even takes pride in it.
But as the story progresses Balram has to lie and take risks for the family he serves.
His employers never repay his loyalty. If anything, his submission just leads them to exploit him more.
So it’s easy to root and cheer for Balram at first as he cunningly manipulates his boss.
But as the film goes on Balram begins to become something much darker.
Comparisons have been drawn between The White Tiger and Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece Parasite.
This comparison is somewhat warranted. Both films are centred around working class characters out for themselves in a world that’s built for the rich.
Balram is willing to do anything to get ahead, even if that means ruining a fellow employee’s life or abandoning his family.
And he accepts this is just the way the world is, even at one point saying, “Rich men have the chance to be good”. And really this film shows just how hard it is for anyone to escape their class position—and how that the ascent to the top is often grubby and ruthless.
With great cinematography and a great soundtrack The White Tiger turns the rags to riches narrative on its head and transforms it into a capitalist nightmare.