This Netflix drama is out to provoke. As angry, smart and dark as Parasite, it explores the horrors of one country’s class system (in this case, India’s caste system), while also putting racial oppression, high-end political corruption and global economic trends centre stage. The film’s anti-hero and narrator, Balram (newcomer Adarsh Gourav), declares, “White people are on the way out. They’re finished within a lifetime. It’s the century of the brown man and the yellow man and God save everyone else!”
The film is based on the Man Booker prize-winning debut novel by Aravind Adiga, a long-time friend of 45 year-old director and writer, Ramin Bahrani. The pair, who met at Columbia University, are both hyphenated (Adiga is Indian-Australian; Bahrani is Iranian-American). Undeniably middle-class, these pals are fascinated by the plight of the non-privileged and they bring out the best in each other.
Bahrani has been jolting hearts and minds for years, via dramas such as Man Push Cart and 99 Homes. But his good intentions can became mired in gallumphing, glossy theatrics (see 2013’s At Any Price and 2018’s Fahrenheit 451). Suffice to say, here, he’s back on form.
Gourav is nuanced and utterly engaging as Balram Halwai, a bright peasant who morphs from lickspittle chauffeur into something more ruthless. Balram has hints of Becky Sharp and The Favourite’s Abigail. He’s a worm and we understand exactly why he turns.
Balram’s life is changed forever by the actions of a rich couple - confused, liberal scion of a wealthy family, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his gorgeous, vivaciously careless American-Indian wife, Pinky (superstar Priyanka Chopra Jonas: perfect).
If Ashok comes close to being a caricature (the indolent offspring who lacks his father’s killer touch) Pinky and Balram are constantly surprising and their half-sexual chemistry is gripping. It’s all in the detail. Pinky tells Balram off for absent-mindedly fondling his own crotch. She reaches out and touches this underling, but never in an obvious way.
The soundtrack is poppy, the camera-work effervescent and poetic. Shots of a dead man’s feet on a funeral pyre, and later of a Delhi beggar with a stump leg, are especially memorable. Bahrani rubs our noses in the frailty and freakishness of the human body and the result is both beautiful and rousing.
Chopra Jonas executive-produced the film, along with Ava DuVernay. Big hitters, they’re just the kind of guardian angels a project like this needs. The White Tiger is going for a mass audience. Despite an overly knotty middle section, it’ll keep bums on sofas and spark debate because it’s both happy to offend and keen to please. Move over Tiger King. There’s a new tiger in town.
On Netflix from January 22