A low-caste driver transforms himself into a kind of tiger king in the January 22nd Netflix release of a new film set in India. The White Tiger—based on a 2008 novel—takes its name from the inspiration caused by an unusual predator spotted at a zoo. The story’s lead character, a chauffeur called Balram, shares the tiger’s traits as a rare and lethal entity.
Adapting Balram’s story from an award-winning piece of fiction by Aravind Adiga, Director Ramin Bahrani explores social dilemmas faced by the disenfranchised. As screenwriter, Bahrani links the bulk of India’s huge population to roosters sitting in pens, watching others killed but nonetheless waiting calmly for their own slaughter. Initially thinking he flew the coop by working for a wealthy family, Balram finds escape more difficult than imagined as a highly visual set of incidents demonstrate.
Yet along with striking imagery, the film relies heavily on accented English narration, demanding that viewers listen carefully. Some may find it helps to use Netflix’s subtitle feature, which aids in decoding speakers’ different English cadences. Characters switch back and forth in languages, with the story well entrenched in non-touristy parts of India.
Production values remain high, using locations ranging from classy, big city sights to dusty rural villages. Topflight actors participate, including Ardarsh Gourav in the title role. A well-known musician in his homeland, Gourav relies on flexible facial features and expressions rather than singing since The White Tiger bears nothing in common with those popular and colorful Bollywood musicals full of song and bright costumes. No final cheery Slumdance style tune finishes the story, though The White Tiger contains elements of both humor and irony.
Like such critically acclaimed films as Parasite and Minari, The White Tiger gains resonance by focusing on characters who want something akin to the American Dream, the chance to get ahead through clever moves blended with hard work. Hidden and unexpected challenges make that goal nearly impossible to reach—and the effort leads to compelling and absorbing drama.