On paper, The White Tiger should be a slam dunk for Netflix. A purportedly sharp-edged satire, it’s based on a well regarded novel, and comes from filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. His early movies had a gritty and unique look at urban cultures that fits a project set in modern India, while 99 Homes has commentary that would be at home in a satirical flick. So, it’s a definite disappointment that The White Tiger struggles land its punches. For a satire, it just doesn’t have very sharp teeth, limiting its effectiveness. The end result is a letdown that could have, and arguably should have, been a bit better than this.
A cross between Parasite and Slumdog Millionaire, among other things, The White Tiger struggles to find its voice. Individual moments work, mostly when it goes for dramatic effectiveness, skewering the Indian caste system, since the supposed comedy isn’t really evident. At times, you can see what Bahrani is going for, but it doesn’t come together, leaving you wishing you could just watch either of the aforementioned titles instead.
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) dreams of escaping his poor village in India. Modern India still has a huge segregation based on wealth, and he’s on the outside looking in. Determined to make something of himself, he develops a plan, utilizing a very special skillset that he’s honed over the years. Indian society has trained him to be a servant, so he uses that to his advantage. Positioning himself as a new driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), recently back from America, he has an in. Once in the doors of their estate, he begins to worm his way deeper into their lives, seemingly harmless, but with grand plans. Mostly, he’s determined never to go back to his village and be a failure in the eyes of his family.
One night, while driving the two of them, an inebriated Pinky asks to take the wheel. Moments later, they’ve hit someone, which they seek to cover up by having Balram take the blame. This pushes him forward in his plan, which will see him make moves to get to the top of the heap, as opposed to being a servant forever. His rebellion begins, with a single-minded goal of success. The cost, of course, will be great, to say the least.
The cast breathes some decent life into the material at times, but no one leaves much of a mark. Adarsh Gourav is largely engaging as an actor, though his character never really comes across as believable. The moves that Balram makes too often feel like the invisible hand of a narrative is moving him, as opposed to the natural progression of the character. Priyanka Chopra-Jonas is fine, but somewhat under-served by the material, while Rajkummar Rao is solid as well. They all do their park, but the script just never takes them over the top.
Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani is attempting something bigger than normal with The White Tiger. He can’t fully pull it off, but the effort is there. Bahrani adapts the book by Aravind Adiga, but something is lost in translation. The purported humor of the source material isn’t really there. Bahrani’s direction is his normally strong filmmaking, but he’s just unable to develop the screenplay to the point required for success. The anger directed at the caste system is palpable, but it’s not focused enough for the punches to cleanly land.
The White Tiger is not one of Netflix’s main awards contenders this year. It’s just not quite up to snuff. There are enough hints of something better here to suggest what Bahrani and company saw in the book by Adiga. At the same time, there’s some frustration there, since it’s a missed opportunity. I may be in the minority here, but it simply did not do enough for me to warrant a recommendation. Alas.