“Murder a man, and you feel responsible for his life—possessive, even. You know more about him than his father and mother; they knew his fetus, but you know his purpose. Only you can complete the story of his life.”
I first read these lines in Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel “The White Tiger”, back in 2015. I was shocked by the amount of brutality the book offered, in the simplest ways possible. I knew then and there that this Man Booker Prize winning novel would be adapted into a movie. I knew the possibilities would be huge and if the said movie carried even half the book’s intensity, it would be a hit.
Little did I expect that a newcomer in Bollywood would get the most important role of Balram Halwai aka Munna, the protagonist. In the movie “The White Tiger”, 26-year-old actor Adarsh Gourav gets his debut lead role and to justify his casting, gives the performance of a lifetime.
Balram, born among the underclass in rural Laxmangarh, is told as a child that he is a white tiger—someone who comes only once in a generation. A bright student, Balram’s dream of completing his education is cut short when he is forced to work at the village teahouse to clear his family debt.
But the ambitious Balram will not give up. He will not be caged in the ‘chicken coop’ forever, unlike his father and brother and rest of the family. He will break the shackles of poverty to cross to the brighter side of India— from the utter darkness his people currently inhabit.
To realize his ambitions, Balram decides to be a driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), an America-returned couple. Ashok is also the son of Laxmangarh’s notorious landlord ‘The Stork’ (Mahesh Manjrekar), to whom Balram’s family is indebted. A cunning Balram connives his way into Ashok’s house and then into his life, tying his master’s faith with himself.
Told in flashbacks, the film’s narration tells the harrowing tale of Balram and his road to entrepreneurship. The path for a ‘servant’ to become a ‘master’ is not as clean and straight as shown in orthodox Bollywood movies. In The White Tiger, the audience sees what the struggle of crossing over means for those from the subclass. While doing so, the morality of almost every character in the film is questioned, leaving no one unscathed. This way, the film explores the dark sides of human nature.
Directed and adapted for the screen with some improvisations by Ramin Bahrani, the film relies heavily on writer Adiga’s wordplay. Adiga’s storytelling is dark, unapologetic and unforgiving. The same essence has been captured in the film, including through the cinematography, which catches the throbbing pulse of the story and never leaves it. Looking at the 2hrs 5mins run time, one might think the film is lengthy but this is one of those gritty slow-burners that will keep you entertained through and through.
Yes, the screenplay, cinematography, and direction are exceptional. But in all fairness, no one deserves as much accolade as the actor Adarsh Gourav. His character of Balram has so many layers of personalities, embodying him is itself a challenge. And to do that while you put some of the most experienced actors in the backseat, both literally and figuratively, is no small feat. Gourav embraces Balram’s life as his own and grows with him on his journey from a servant to an entrepreneur.
Who should watch it?
The White Tiger, as a standalone movie, is a brilliant piece of work. But honestly, if you’ve read the book, you might find it still does not match the intensity. Not to take away anything from the movie though. Adiga’s book is a masterpiece that comes once in a generation. So if you have not read the book, chances are that you will pit The White Tiger against some of the best movies you’ve watched. And even if you read it, the cinematic representation is thoroughly enjoyable as well.