Adaptations of literary bestsellers are notoriously difficult to pull off, but clearly nobody mentioned this to writer/director Ramin Bahrani. He launches into his version of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel with such irresistible gusto, we’re swept up in it almost before we have time to draw breath. Dropping us briefly into a pivotal moment in our young protagonist’s life, he then flings us headlong into the character’s present, before winding us all the way back to the very beginning, the narrative powered onwards on a raft of irresistible Asian pop.
The White Tiger is, of course, the picaresque tale of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), as told to the Chinese Premier, We Jabao, on the eve of his trade trip to India. This is a narrative device that seems as unnecessary here as it did in the source novel, but no matter, it doesn’t really cause any problems. Balram is an impoverished kid from an impoverished family living in a rural village in India. He dares to dream of escaping from the seemingly endless cycle of poverty into which his caste – the sweet-makers – places him. After borrowing money from his grandmother for ‘driving lessons,’ he heads for Delhi and approaches the crooked landlord of his village, managing to acquire the job of driver to the man’s youngest son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), recently returned from America with his wife, Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra), in tow.
At first, the working relationship is cordial enough. Ashok appears to want none of the bowing and scraping that his father and older brothers demand from their employees, insisting that Balram calls him by his first name, urging him to refrain from opening doors for him, etc., but, when the narrative finally returns to that briefly glimpsed pivotal moment, it becomes clear that the yawning void between master and servant can never be successfully crossed – and that it’s going to take some drastic action of Balram’s part if he’s ever going to become his own man…
Built around an adorable central performance by Gourav, The White Tiger never pulls its punches and paints a vivid picture of a world where deceit and corruption appear to be an integral part of society: where those who dream of escaping to a better life must be prepared to tread on the lives friends and families in order to achieve their goals – and where nobody, not even a close family member, can ever truly be trusted.
This is a cracking film that hammers through its two hour and five minutes running time without ever running out of momentum. It’s vivacious, funny and occasionally heart-rending. If only all literary adaptations could be as sprightly as this one.