The White Tiger

Both the book and the film adaptation take a scathing, and ultimately entertaining, look at India’s class system — but one comes up slightly on top.



Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize winning novel, 'The White Tiger' plays out as a first person narrative told from the perspective of its anti-hero protagonist, Balram Halwai. The story unfolds through eight emails to then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as Balram attempts to sell his entrepreneurial prowess to the Chinese leader prompted by an All India Radio broadcast announcing a planned visit to India.

The Netflix film of the same name is adapted from Adiga’s book, and as far as adaptations go, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani comes full circle here — Bahrani, who has remained friends with Adiga since their days at college, and to whom the novel is dedicated, read rough drafts as far back as four years before the book was published. Hailed as the “new great American director” by critic Roger Ebert after Bahrani’s 2007 film ‘Chop Shop’, the Iranian-American, in 2021, earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination for his Netflix adaptation.

Netflix had previously adapted Adigar’s 2016 novel ‘Selection Day’ into a series with some success. While not panned by critics, Selection Day was criticised for being drawn out  — though individual performances drew praise. Perhaps this, with the added limitation of drawing in in-demand actors for a longer production schedule, informed the decision to make The White Tiger a stand-alone film instead of a series. While the format of the book may have leant it more towards a six or seven episode series, the two hour film adaptation was clearly the right move for this story.

Bahrani’s adaptation is tight, yet it has enough room to breath and the story momentum feels organic and un-rushed. While the first person perspective worked spectacularly in the book it is clear in this instance that drawing out the same approach in an on screen series would not necessarily have translated better. The film is a cleverly crafted tale with extremely good performances. Adarsh Gourav is brilliant as Balram Halwai; as is Rajkummar Rao’s turn as his master, Ashok Shah. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, as Pinky Madam, does some of her best work here; bringing a depth and urgency to her role that has been absent from her performances in years — her character feels more fleshed out for the film, to the point where Balram’s eventual turn feels, at least in part, motivated and “inspired” by her “belief” in him. Marshalled by Bahrani, the supporting cast are equally as good and, coupled with the technical execution of the film, leaves little doubt as to why he might have been singled out by Ebert as a formidable future talent. The film’s defining “flaw” perhaps is its more grounded approach; whereas the book’s dark humour borders more on satire.

Adiga’s book however still comes out slightly ahead in terms of narrative execution. The first person narrative not only works well but, jumping off the page, binds the reader to Balram almost instantaneously. There is more of a sense of self identifying as Balram — Adiga does quick work of having the reader take on Balram’s perspective while Bahrani’s film, by virtue of moving images being a less “audience involved” medium than books, does not have the same advantage. The book, with a clearer window into Balram’s mind, hints at a wit, and dark sense of humour somewhat befitting a White Tiger; a monicker first earned at school when an education inspector compares him to the rare, once in a generation, creature. The film chooses wisely, given the medium, to imbue Balram with more of a real world desperation but in doing so perhaps slightly loses the relevance of Balram being the White Tiger.

Both the book and the film adaptation provide a relevant critique of the lives of the poor versus the rich, and India’s caste/class system, and how the system is rigged against the poor. The White Tiger seems to make the case that clawing one’s way out of poverty is the only assured choice to escape it; however one should do well to remember that Balram’s story is, entertainingly crafted and filmed as it may be, a metaphor. In the end both, the film and the book, draw attention to the injustices, inequalities and double standards of a classist society with unfair, and ingrained, prejudices — it lays bare the underbelly which, as the audience, we cannot now un-see.

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