I remember I was pursuing my engineering degree when Aravind Adiga came out with his debut novel, The White Tiger, which went on to win the Man Booker Prize. And ever since then I have been anticipating its movie adaptation. But what I dreaded most was Bollywood’s shoddy track record when it comes to adapting literary works. I always knew that an international film adaptation is what the novel deserves.
So when I learnt that a director of international standing like Ramin Bahrani was helming the project I got really chuffed. Of course, I first heard of Bahrani when noted American critic Roger Ebert listed Chop Shop as the sixth-best film of the 2000s and hailed him as “the new director of the decade”. But it was only after I watched 99 Homes that I got fully convinced about his prowess as a filmmaker.
Now, Bahrani’s adaptation of The White Tiger has its share of strengths and weaknesses. One of the most obvious shortcomings is the filmmaker’s urge to contract the novel into a two hour film. The original material has a sprawling quality that would have ideally suited one of the longer formats such as a mini-series. But by no means can one deny Bahrani’s commitment to Adiga’s vision. That he has managed to tell a compelling story that’s true to the spirit of the novel is certainly commendable.
Now, a lot of the critics outside India have called the movie ‘anti-Slumdog Millionaire’. While I appreciate their sentiments what I don’t understand is their inability to highlight that Adiga’s novel predates Slumdog Millionaire by almost a year. In fact, when I had first watched Danny Boyle’s film I had straightaway thought of it as ‘anti-The White Tiger’. I always thought while Adiga’s novel is quite close to reality, Danny Boyle’s film is closer to fantasy. A tea seller winning a quiz show based on his childhood experiences makes for a wonderful story but it’s only as realistic as say an Aladdin or a Harry Potter. Yes, The White Tiger is also a rags to riches story but it doesn’t try to do away with the grind that pulls down Balram Halwai’s story to the realm of realism.
Also, the characters and performances in The White Tiger are far more realistic. Adarsh Gourav’s Balram Halwai is far more believable than Dev Patel’s Jamal Malik. It’s a breakthrough performance for Gourav that may earn him an Oscar nomination but it’s a little too early to comment on that. The same is true of other characters. Take, for example, the case of Nalneesh Neel‘s Vitiligo Lips. You believe him right from the moment he first appears on the screen. Most people living in the metros would have come across such slippery characters in their personal or professional space. Credit of course goes to Nalneesh Neel and Bahrani for making Vitiligo Lips so real. Interestingly, Bahrani was so particular about the look of the character that he sent Nalneesh Neel to London to get it perfected and it shows.
Amongst other performances, it is Priyanka Chopra’s Pinky that stands out. Chopra is able to bring a certain vulnerability to the character. While Pinky is no saint she does act like a moral compass for the characters around her. Every time she is on the screen one just can’t take one’s eyes off her. While her acting pedigree was never under question there is no denying that Chopra looks a much improved performer now. It would really be a shame if she doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar for the part. On the other hand, Rajkummar Rao’s performance looks quite flat even though he gets more screen time than Chopra.
The White Tiger is a scathing satire on what can be described as the ‘Great Indian Dream’. Balram Halwai is a mere conduit to tell the story of aspirations and dreams of millions of young Indians who want to get rich and famous but lack the means to do so. Despite a few hiccups, Bahrani succeeds in capturing the spirit of Adiga’s novel. Had he chosen to make a mini-series he would have had the luxury to be more flexible with his narrative choices but even in its present form with all the narrative constraints Bahrani manages to pack a punch.
(Murtaza Ali Khan is a noted Indian Film & TV Critic. He can be reached at email@example.com)