Netflix’s film output can be a mixed bag. The streaming giant sinks a lot of money into expensive, star driven vehicles that are average at best (see last year’s Rebecca, Hillbilly Elegy, and The Midnight Sky). However, it has also provided a platform for interesting stories that in ordinary times may have struggled for breathing room in a packed cinema schedule. Stripped of the regular frills of a Hollywood production, White Tiger falls into the latter category, allowing its compelling story to speak for itself.
Adarsh Gourav stars and narrates as Balram Halwai, an intelligent young man whose progression is throttled by India’s restrictive wealth divide, that seeks to keep him working in the poor village where he grew up. Taking a chance, he charms his way into the household of one of the landlords of his town, becoming a driver for his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas). As he observes the day-to-day lives of his affluent employers, Balram unpicks his engrained servant mentality, realising that the only way to progress is to take matters into his own hands.
With an energetic pace and brutally honest attitude, director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, 99 Homes) leaves us in no doubt about the story he is about to tell. Set in to the backdrop of a heated national election, Balram calls the system he is trapped in The Chicken Coop, where those trapped inside are well aware of what is about to happen to them, but unable to do anything about it. It’s a stark illustration of India’s wealth divide that will ring true in many cultures where being poor is treated as some kind of moral failing, and the rich break all the rungs on the ladder.
There’s a touch of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in the black comedy that runs through the middle of the story, both in Balram’s initial naivety, and his employers’ lack of awareness. Ashok is comparatively liberal compared to his father, but still talks about Balram while he is standing right in front of him. It’s a reminder of the sheer power of the world Balram wishes to penetrate, and given that the film is narrated by a wealthy future of the character, the question of how he gets where he is becomes all the more pressing.
While it may be reminiscent of one Oscar winner, the script distances itself from another as Balram laments “I was trapped in The Chicken Coop, and don’t think for a second there’s a million-rupee game show to get out of it”. Aravind Adiga’s original novel was written around the time of Slumdog Millionaire, and while the story bears some surface comparison it is far more interested in reality than Danny Boyle’s hit. Balram explains what would happen to him and his family if he were to betray his masters, with the consequences shown on screen. Politicians that promise change take the same bribes as their opponents. There are no noble heroes here, only survivors, and Balram’s journey is really about coming to terms with the scale of the decisions he will have to make.
Young lead Gourav is terrific, balancing his character’s conflict beautifully. “Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love – or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?” he ponders, as despite the knowledge of his mistreatment he still cares for those he serves. Equally strong in supporting roles are Rao and Chopra-Jones as a couple who have carried ideals back with them from their home in New York, but who lean on The Old Ways quickly if things start to get tough.
White Tiger is an unapologetically grim take on a rise from poverty, but the mix of dynamic filmmaking and personable stars mean its far from a slog. As the high-profile awards bait gets thrown at you during the next few months, this more considered offering is worth bumping to the top of your queue.
White Tiger is available on Netflix from 22nd January.