The White Tiger is a fantastic film, and I’ am absolutely flummoxed that I had only heard about it this week.
I think part of my disbelief stems from what I recognize as one of the greatest strengths of 2020-21 COVID awards season—strengths which I believe Tiger expertly exhibits. Some of the most talked about films of the year (and the likely Oscar front-runners) include such great works like Nomadland, Sound of Metal, Minari, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Da 5 bloods, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Pieces of a Woman, Promising Young Woman, Malcolm & Marie, and One Night in Miami.
If that sounds like a long list to you, that’s because it is—and that’s a good thing. We should always be thankful for more great movies, and part of what makes all these movies so good is that they are telling us stories that we simply just don’t hear enough. They’re fresh and exciting, while remaining entertaining.
The White Tiger is no exception. The eighth film by writer-director Ramin Bahrani, Tiger is an evasive predator of a film, avoiding all award season buzz until its release. It is an honest commentary on several facets of Indian society, supported by cinematography of oftentimes thoughtful artistry, and one of the best cast performances of the year. Spoilers below:
Tiger concerns the story of Balmar Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), an ambitious young man out of the village of Laxmangarh, who finesses through society to work as the servant and eventual driver of Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the wealthy son of the village landlord (Mahesh Manjrekar).
The film first opens on a brief, no-context scene of Balmar and Ashok riding in the car as Ashok’s wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) zooms through the streets of Delhi in the year 2007. The camera freezes just before a joy-ride disaster, and we hear the voice-over of Balmar from 2010, who apologizes that “this is no way to start the story.”
I’d have to agree. It’s a tired old trope, and if there are any structural weaknesses in the script it’s this point right here. Luckily, it all occurs within the first two minutes, and what follows is a brutally self-aware and constantly hilarious narrative that is framed in 2010 Balmar’s email to Wen Jinbao, the former head of the Chinese Government.
Balmar’s shots-throwing, self-deprecating introductions to Wen set a tone that the film maintains throughout its 2 hours and 5 minutes runtime. The script, story and characters all hold a mirror to a variety of Indian cultural topics—and boy, does this mirror have some grit on its glass.
“India is two countries in one,” says Balmar. One of light, and one of shadow. This theme of duality manifests in the film in a variety of high-capacity creative ways, and I think special note should be given to the film’s cinematography. Aside for a couple of strange edits and one bad case of basement lighting, The White Tiger is expertly framed and its colors are crisp and clear, but it is what those involved with the film have done with this concept of “two-ness” that amounts to nothing short of pure visual poetry.
All three leads (Gourav, Rao, and Chopra) come in top form, and all work well with an apt supporting cast with no weak links. It’s an excellent opener to the West for Gourav, but highest commendations should be given to Rao and Chopra (the latter of whom also executive produced), who play with one of the year’s smartest, tough-on-its-subject scripts with endearing realism.
And, as zany and offbeat as it is, The White Tiger is, in some ways, exactly that: a real story. Or a truthful one, anyway. Transgressions aren’t forgiven nor are they always morally resolved by the narrative. But that’s real. More than anything else, The White Tiger is an in-your-face look at one part of our world, serving up international implications about class relations. Its unconventional ending leaves you the viewer to decide how you would like to answer.
You better hurry, though. Otherwise, the Tiger‘ll get ya—just like how its coming for all the other Oscar contenders.