This gritty drama about class inequality in India will resonate with viewers from all around the world.
In a voiceover narration set up as a letter from the main character to the visiting premier of China, Balram asserts that where there used to be a thousand castes in India, now there are only two: men with big bellies and men with small bellies.
It's only when he throws off the shackles of servitude by cheating his "master" out of money that he says his belly begins to grow. It's just one example of how the untrustworthy narrator of The White Tiger blends dark humor with social critique in a mix that is compelling, entertaining, and distressing all at once.
The film plays out in two contrasting hours, much like South Korean satire Parasite, with which it will doubtless be compared. The first hour feels like a slightly quirky rags-to-riches dramatic comedy; the second hour, beginning with an accident foreshadowed in the introduction, spirals downward into darker drama and crime. Both parts are driven by a subtle and convincing performance by Adarsh Gourav as Balram.
The White Tiger pulls no punches in its clear-eyed depiction of class inequalities, corruption, and violence in India, where a man of Balram's status is born into layers of servitude. "I was trapped in the rooster coop," Balram states of his and other servants' resignation to their fate. "And don't believe for a second there's a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it." A show, maybe, like the one that saves a man like Balram in 2008's Slumdog Millionaire.
Balram's narrative is so laden with social commentary, you have to pay close attention not to miss any of his one-liners. He sneers at the idea of India as the world's "largest democracy" and watches as a politician known as "The Great Socialist" wins the poor vote with one hand and arrogantly bribes wealthy business owners with the other. He vows if he were elected leader of India, he'd focus on sewage pipes before democracy. He declares the future belongs to India and China, not America, and yet the America-raised and –educated Pinky is the film's most egalitarian and generous character.
As the title hints, the film also plays with animal symbolism for dramatic (caged roosters and tigers, cawing crows) and comedic (cows, "the most well-fed members" of the family) effect.