The White Tiger is a story of servitude, resentment and love – and what its hero calls “the contented smile that comes to the lips of a servant who has done his duty by his master”. He does a lot of smiling in this film, but this is about something other than contentment. It is a professional reflex and a personal holding pattern, a blank grin kept in place while the servant decides if he in fact hates his master, and while he also decides if he might somehow one day be the master himself. It is an ambiguous smile, which causes him to wonder if he hates the master behind a facade of loving, or loves this role-model behind a facade of hating. And this desperate aspirational cunning and survival-struggle is happening in India, which is shown to have the same ambiguously submissive attitude to the globalised employer forces of China, Britain and the United States, who all want India’s cheap labour for their outsourcing.
The drama is adapted by film-maker Ramin Bahrani from the 2008 bestseller and Booker prize winner by Aravind Adiga, and Bahrani also directs with terrific storytelling energy. It is powered by satirical pessimism about a feudal-gangster system depicted as alive and well in 21st-century India – thriving in parallel with the cynical exploitation and arrogance of other countries. Bahrani finds in this story the same battle with poverty that he gave us in Man Push Cart (2005) and a toxic mentor-mentee bromance to compare with his 99 Homes (2014), in which the hero also finds himself working for the people who humiliated his family.
Adarsh Gourav gives a tremendous performance as Balram, a likely lad from a dirt-poor village who once deeply impressed his teachers with his academic flair – as rare as a white tiger. But his family’s catastrophic collapse into poverty meant that his schooling had to be abandoned, and grownup Balram is watchfully aware of the wealthy landlord family presiding over his wretchedness, grasping at their rent even though they are already rich through exporting coal. There is the hatchet-faced patriarch nicknamed the Stork (played by director and actor Mahesh Manjrekar), and the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), his boorish elder son. But there is also the more liberal, tolerant younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who is just back from the US with his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). Ruthlessly ambitious Balram makes it his business to grovel strategically to this overlord family and soon gets a job as personal driver to Ashok and Pinky, humbly living in the dank subterranean level of their luxury Delhi apartment block and being treated kindly by this modern-minded, Americanised young couple, who pride themselves on being nice to the staff – up to a point. But a terrible accident brings their relationship, and Balram’s secret self-hate, to a crisis.
The White Tiger is a dangerous adventure of self-betterment from the teeming city streets, influenced by Adiga’s own avowed love of Dickens and Balzac, and it’s a really enjoyable story, though not without flaws. I could have done without Balram introducing himself through the hackneyed 90s device of the freeze-frame/voiceover, bringing us into his story at its highest moment of car-crash drama and tragedy – everything but a needle-scratch into silence. It makes for a slightly misjudged moment of irony. And it is arguably unconvincing that, having shown us how the ruling classes can get away with murder because the lower-caste victims are all disposably alike, the film suggests that servants could also get away with it because they are all indistinguishable. It can’t be as easy as that.
But I liked Balram’s epiphany that the servant’s real relief is not to dream that he has killed his master and then wake to find that he hasn’t, but to dream that he has timidly failed to murder his master and then wake in riches to find, once again, that he has.
The idea of family is behind it all. Balram’s own family are of no actual help. Balram will often claim that Ashok and Pinky are his true family and for all that this is a gruesome perversion of the truth, this fatcat clan often does not seem to be much more callous and indifferent than Balram’s own kin. Tellingly, Balram shows no great interest in getting married: whatever romantic energies he has are entirely subsumed into his need to submit, parasitically, to his employer. An absorbing tale of feline ambition.
• The White Tiger is on Netflix on 22 January.