Powered by a surging, impatient energy and a bracing undercurrent of spite, Ramin Bahrani’s version of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker prize-winning novel is one of the more successful literary adaptations of recent years. The story of a poor but wily driver who claws his way out of the cage created by caste and servitude to become a success story in the new India, it’s not subtle in approach. Nor should it be: it’s a full-blooded assault on a rigged system designed to keep the privileged in their lofty place and the poor on the streets far below. Although it leans heavily on narration, the film’s skittish cinematography brings texture to the backdrop and a satisfying depth to the characters.
The narrator is Balram (Adarsh Gourav, excellent in a slippery, hard-to-like role); he’s smart and ambitious, but destined to work on his family’s tea stand. Spotting an opportunity, he learns to drive, masters the flattery that the upper classes expect from their servants, and inveigles himself into a driving job for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao).
Balram brings total loyalty to his urbane, US-educated new boss. But loyalty cuts both ways. When Balram is betrayed by his employers, his ingratiating smile curdles, and generations-worth of suppressed anger finally erupts. In contrast to the empathic embrace of Bahrani’s early films (Man Push Cart; Chop Shop), this is harder, more cynical. But we don’t need to warm to the characters to be enthralled by this compulsively watchable class parable.