Humanity’s worst kept secret is that the world of wealth and privilege go hand in hand, and that idea is explored in “The White Tiger,” the big screen adaptation of Aravind Adiga‘s 2008 prize-winning novel. The author wrote the book as a critique of the state of things in his home country, but the situation in India and the story’s themes of corruption within the political system and the separation of the elite and working classes is universally relatable to most citizens across the globe.
Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) narrates his rise from poor villager to successful entrepreneur in modern India, starting with a flashback narrative when he was a child living in the slums. He has been ambitious his entire life, learning English and seizing opportunity whenever a chance arises. Balram talks his way into becoming a personal driver for the wealthy Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), a couple who have returned to India after living in America for many years, but finds himself at the beck and call of the more corrupt associates of the family. They’re up to no good, paying off politicians and often treating Balram like trash. But just when he thinks he’s made himself indispensable to the family, they betray him in a way that could ruin his life forever. On the verge of losing everything, Balram rises up against this inequality with a vengeance, and it’s shocking what he must do to truly become free.
The film has a moral complexity that’s provocative and disturbing. Balram first declares that India’s caste system is divided into two categories: “men with big bellies, and men with small bellies.” It’s one of the simplest ways of thinking about this division, but he’s not wrong. As the man is exposed to big city ideas and becomes envious of the upper class lifestyle, he begins rejecting centuries-old traditions and cutting ties with his family and the village back home. Capitalism consumes him, and he’ll even entertain murder to get ahead.
The story gives a compelling look into the working class and societal changes in modern-day India, where those in charge aren’t too keen on investing in things to help the poor. As the “have-nots” begin speaking up and letting their ambition be known, it causes a conflict with those at the top. “Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste,” as Balram says. Corruption is everywhere. Sound familiar?
Director Ramin Bahrani doesn’t turn an eye to the worst parts of his lead character, making Balram a person you both love and loathe at different points in the story. It’s part of the reason “The White Tiger” is so intriguing, and it adds a layer of relatability to the ongoing class struggle in a globalized world.