“The White Tiger” is easily compared to “Slumdog Millionaire,” because both are Indian movies about men who grew up in the lowest caste, yet rose to achieve something unlikely. In “Slumdog Millionaire,” 18-year-old Jamal uses incidents from his life to win the top prize on the TV game show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” In “The White Tiger,” the protagonist is Balram, who has risen from a poverty-stricken existence in a very poor town to become a successful entrepreneur in Delhi.
Balram knows that people with his status are like chickens who rarely get out of the coop, but he’s determined to make it. To do so, he convinces a man known as The Stork — a rich landlord who takes money from villagers — to hire him as a chauffeur. The Stork already has a driver, but hires Balram for his son, Ashok, and his American daughter-in-law, Pinky. The couple treats Balram better than the rest of the family and the relationship becomes more than master and servant — but only to a certain extent.
The bond gets tested one night in an ugly incident, which The Stork insists Balram take responsibility for. It also causes Pinky to leave Ashok and return to the US. Without her to act as a buffer, Ashok begins treating Balram differently and appears to be on the verge of hiring a replacement driver. Seeing no other way out, Balram takes matters into his own hands. His action severs his relationship with the family forever, but also sets him up for a new career running his own business.
I was rooting for Balram throughout “The White Tiger,” but the final act turned me against him. I won’t tell you what happens, but suffice to say Balram turns out not to be like Jamal of “Slumdog Millionaire,” whose brains and cunning served him so well.
There’s also a preposterous framing device used throughout “The White Tiger,” in which Balram narrates his life story in a letter to the president of China, who is coming to Delhi on a state visit. While clever in its commentary (“I think we can agree that America is so yesterday … The future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man”), the correspondence seems added because the filmmakers didn’t do a good enough job telling their underlying story.
The blame for that has to lie with director Ramin Bahrani, who adapted the screenplay from a 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga. While the script has some caustic things to say about how businesspeople use bribery to get what they want from politicians, and shows the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in India, the path that Balram takes in the movie’s resolution left a sour taste in my mouth.
That’s why I’m only giving “The White Tiger” a 5 out of 10. Streaming now on Netflix.