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​Adarsh Gourav ​as ​Balram​ ​in The White Tiger is pitch perfect.

Tejinder Singh Khamkha/Netflix

  • The White Tiger
  • Directed by Ramin Bahrani
  • Written by Ramin Bahrani, adapted from the novel by Aravind Adiga
  • Starring Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas
  • Classification R; 125 minutes

Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani's spin on the novel brings the story alive – even if the voiceover grates occasionally.

Tejinder Singh Khamkha/Netflix

I’ll admit it. When Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, I was intrigued enough to read the book. But I didn’t finish it in one sitting, as is my wont with slim-ish novels. The prose rankled me. Unlike the back cover blurbs (almost all written by male authors) that described Adiga’s writing as darkly humorous, exhilarating and, in one particular case, “the authentic voice of the Third World like you’ve never heard before,” I wasn’t moved by the narrative. It was fun, and a pretty accurate depiction of contemporary India, despite its problematic gaze. But did I take anything away from Adiga’s novel? Not really.

The same can be said about the adaptation by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, 99 Homes). If you can’t be bothered to read the book, watch the movie. The script is taut, the actors perform their roles well and some neat visual and sound design elements add texture to this portrayal of rising India. Bahrani’s spin on the novel brings the story alive – even if the voiceover grates occasionally.

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The White Tiger uses the narrative device of an e-mail written by one Balram Halwai to the former premier of China, Wen Jiabao, on the occasion of the official’s visit to Bangalore. (Jiabao visited the city known as India’s Silicon Valley in 2005, but the book positions the events as occurring between 2007 and 2010.) In the note, Balram describes his transformation from a poor boy in the backwater village of Laxmangarh to a cigarillo-smoking entrepreneur in Bangalore.

Priyanka Chopra ​Jonas as ​Pinky in The White Tiger.

Tejinder Singh Khamkha/Netflix

It doesn’t help that Balram’s father dies early and his money-grubbing granny pulls him out of school to work along with his oafish brother. Over the years, Balram graduates from hammering coal chunks to becoming a tea-stall waiter. However, an opportunity comes the way of the grown-up Balram (Adarsh Gourav), when his landlord’s younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), returns from America with an Indo-American wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), to assist with the family business. Balram figures that getting a job as Ashok’s driver is his ticket out, and he’s right – sort of.

Balram gets the gig, but quickly understands the hypocrisies around him. His employers want to appear progressive by opening their own doors; they even call him family. But he knows his place is not on the sofa set with them. And a joyride around Delhi streets hammers in that rude awakening. The White Tiger opens with that joyride, so you know where this story is going to go. The rest of the film is the how and why of it all.

There will be inevitable comparisons between The White Tiger and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. But the two films are entirely different beasts.

Slumdog Millionaire offered glimpses of the exotic India adored by tourists and people who understand the country primarily through their yoga classes and the Bollywood routine performed at a friend’s wedding. The White Tiger is bleak. Cinematographer Paolo Carnera’s canvas offers up a palette of beiges and greys, apt for Delhi’s smog-filled surroundings. The hip-hop soundtrack, and a hat-tip to the monster tune Mundian To Bach Ke/Beware of the Boys by Panjabi MC and Jay-Z, adds to the kinetic pulse of the movie, which is keenly offset by a ponderous instrumental score when the many hearts of darkness are revealed.

As the lead character, Gourav is the reason to watch The White Tiger. His embodiment of Balram is pitch-perfect. This is precisely why the insistent voiceover that neatly sums up his predicaments in concise statements such as, “If only a man could spit out his past so easily,” starts to feel annoying rather than edifying. Rao and Jonas are good in their limited roles.

Rajkummar Rao, left, as Ashok is good in his limited role.

Tejinder Singh Khamkha/Netflix

A couple of inside jokes were fun to catch, such as watching Swaroop Sampat, who played a fun-loving wife in the 1984 Indian TV sitcom Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, enjoy a cameo as a paan-chewing, profane politician with equal measures of shock and fascination. Or seeing a clip of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, a cult classic Hindi film on Indian corruption, playing in the background during one scene.

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But that leaves me with the question that I seem to end up with after watching many movies these days. Who is this film for? For non-Indian viewers, maybe The White Tiger offers up a different perspective than Netflix shows such as Indian Matchmaking. For a viewer such as myself, though, there are more visceral mirrors to reality easily available – in Indian cinema or just, well, daily life.

The White Tiger is available to stream on Netflix starting Jan. 22

In the interest of consistency, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s choice designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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