There’s a sense of snarling menace implicit in “The White Tiger,” a subversive, sharp-toothed dramedy of upward social mobility by writer-director Ramin Bahrani (“99 Homes”), based on Aravind Adiga’s best-selling 2008 novel, which won the Man Booker Prize.
It’s not just in the title, a metaphorical moniker for uniqueness slapped on the film’s ambitious protagonist, a canny but impoverished low-caste Indian named Balram (Adarsh Gourav), as a child. It’s there, lurking in every shadow of this dark rags-to-riches tale itself: a coiled threat to the traditional world order of haves and have-nots, just waiting to pounce.
After the opening scene, set in a car careening through the streets of Delhi at night – a short, alarming prologue that is quickly interrupted by Balram’s narration, framed somewhat preposterously as an email he’s composing to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the eve of his 2010 visit to India – the film gets down to business. Told mostly in flashback, “Tiger” follows Balram’s rise from poverty to become the No. 2 chauffeur for a rich, corrupt landlord known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and his son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao).
It isn’t long that he’s No. 2. Balram soon supplants the Stork’s top driver (Girish Pal) when he reveals that the longtime employee – or servant, in the parlance of the film – is a Muslim. (The Stork hates Muslims.) Soon Balram is making money in side hustles that involve submitting fake invoices to his boss for unnecessary repairs, and siphoning gas to sell on the streets, all the while ingratiating himself with the Western-educated Ashok and his American-raised wife, a chiropractor named Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Both of them are progressive enough to treat Balram not as their servant but their pal – until it no longer serves them, that is.
The subservient relationship between Balram and this wealthy couple – around which the rising action of the film revolves, turning on that pivotal car ride that opens the movie, and that will change everything for the main character – is premised on privilege. Not the privilege of skin color but social status. To be sure, India is unlike many other places, with its numerous, rigidly defined castes. But as Balram configures it, there are really only two castes that matter: people with big bellies, and people with small bellies.
That’s true everywhere, even in the socially fluid, presumably classless America.
In that sense – although set, very specifically, in India – “The White Tiger” is an allegory that could take place anywhere, and that feels uncomfortably familiar. Balram comes to resent the systemic oppression that keeps him down. (He uses another animal metaphor to describe it, referring to the millions of members of the vast Indian underclass as “roosters in a coop” who are too docile – or too stupid – to escape, when they can see their comrades being slaughtered for dinner just outside the cage.)
Such polarization and inequality – Balram casts it as another dichotomy: an India of darkness, and an India of light – isn’t unique to his country. And as the blithely clueless cheerfulness of film’s antihero gradually curdles to cunning connivance, so does the narrative’s black comedy congeal, taking on a tone that is less jokey than sickening. (Balram cracks wise throughout the film, saying at one point, about the world’s largest democracy: “If I were in charge of India, I’d get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy.”)
As he demonstrated with the recession-themed “99 Homes,” Bahrani is a cynical observer of the forces underling cultural upheaval; the story of “Tiger,” at times, feels more schematic and archetypal than wholly lived by real people. But its ominous message – watch out for the person whose back you’re stepping on – has never been more timely.