Review: ‘The White Tiger’ is a rags-to-riches story, but not a fairy tale

With over 1.3 billion people, India is the worlds largest democracy. The country is still steeped in traditional values, and while there used to be many castes of people there are now seemingly just two: the rich, and the poor. The White Tiger sets out to tell you a tale of those two classes, much like 2008s Slumdog Millionaire did, but where Slumdog was a fairy tale, The White Tiger is a tale of power and abuse, and how those things will reveal exactly who you are.

The story begins in media res, with three young people barrelling down the road in an SUV. Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) is behind the wheel and having the time of her life. Her husband Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) is in the passenger seat, clearly enjoying his wife having a good time. In the back seat is Balram (Adarsh Gourav) smiling anxiously, clearly wanting to enjoy himself but clearly worried about Pinky’s erratic, inebriated driving.

When a child runs into the road, directly into the path of the speeding SUV, the action freezes, and Balram’s voiceover begins, rewinding to his childhood and telling us about his humble origins and aspirations to escape his place as a poor working servant and join the upper class by becoming a driver to the men that literally worked his father to death, and later by hustling to make extra cash.

Balram likens the world a street vendors rooster coop. The roosters in the coop can see and smell their cohort’s blood and gore being slaughtered, but make no attempt to escape. This is how it works in his India, with the masters exploiting the poor and the poor waiting for their turn to be exploited, and there’s no game show they can enter to win their way out of it.

Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra, and Adarsh Gourav/ The White Tiger

It’s hard not to see The White Tiger as a direct refutation of Slumdog Millionaire when the film calls out the comparison directly. Slumdog did shine a light on India’s poor. It was also produced and directed by British men. It told its story through rose coloured glasses that revealed every torment for the main character was leading to his aforementioned gameshow escape. This film makes no such leaps: the rich torment the poor because they can, and that’s it. If a man like Balram wants to advance, The White Tiger illustrates how far he might have to do it.

Adarsh Gourav is making his debut as a leading man in this film, and it’s plain to see why he got the part. He navigates Balram’s character with aplomb, especially toward the end when he starts to realize what his place in this world actually is. Priyanka Chopra is also excellent as Pinky, the American wife to a progressive Indian man who isn’t as progressive as he would like to believe. When her turn to find out exactly what kind of person comes, she handles that turn with a great deal of nuance.

The White Tiger sags a little in the middle, but the story and performances are engaging and interesting throughout. It shines a light on parts of India that are less comfortable than we are familiar with and asks questions that have answers you might not like, but you’ll be entertained the whole way through.

The White Tiger premieres on Netflix on Friday, January 22nd.