Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
India/USA, 2021. Lava Media, ARRAY Filmworks, Netflix, Noruz Films. Screenplay by Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga. Cinematography by Paolo Carnera. Produced by Ramin Bahrani, Mukul Deora. Music by Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans. Production Design by Chad Keith. Costume Design by Smriti Chauhan. Film Editing by Ramin Bahrani, Tim Streeto. Academy Awards 2020.
Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling 2008 novel is brought to the big screen after years of development hell, its rights purchased in 2010 and the project left to drag along until Adiga asked his old friend (and popular independent filmmaking festival favourite) Ramin Bahrani to bring it to the finish line. One braces for yet another egregious exploitation of India as a charismatic land of degradation as is usually put across by outsiders filming their movies there, sort of a brainy Slumdog Millionaire with capital gain as the main character’s goal in place of his search for true love. Bahrani’s protagonist, however is a sharply defined individual who stands out from a bunch of literary, thematic characters (like a political leader only referred to as “The Great Socialist”) and the story’s take on the Asian subcontinental country comes across as observation more often than judgment. Adarsh Gourav is magnificent as Balram, a successful business owner who is anticipating the upcoming state visit of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and writes him an email asking for them to meet, interested in Wen’s idea of entrepreneurship as the only future possible for India and hoping to share with him his own experience. We flash back to Balram’s childhood and adolescence in his tiny village, living under the harsh thumb of his exacting grandmother who tells him that he is a “white tiger”, a special child born once in a lifetime who will defy the odds. The odds against him are pretty magnificent in his low-caste situation, but he wins a scholarship to study in Delhi that promises a bright future until he learns that he cannot accept it because his father owes dues to the village landlord, “The Stork”. Balram works in his grandmother’s tea stall until coming up with a plan to get ahead, learning to drive and weaving his way into the Stork’s mansion by getting a job as second driver, working directly for the boss’s American-educated son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). Ashok has come back to India with his American-raised wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra, who also served as producer) and has great ideas for helping the country’s business force join the modern world, which Balram listens to with great fascination while believing that serving his boss faithfully is what gives his life meaning and will bring him rewards. He takes kicks and punches from Ashok’s brother and father and never complains, learns to be more upstanding in his dress and appearance from Pinky, and even willingly stands as fall guy when his beloved boss gets involved in a street accident that leaves a child dead…you find yourself wondering just how long it will take before this plucky young hero, who bounces through his experiences like a modern-day version of a Henry Fielding character, realizes that he is being taken for a ride by people who only seek to exploit his labour. When he finally does, the results are devastating, and what Balram is trying to tell Jiabao is that India needs to seriously rethink its reliance on class boundaries if the magic of entrepreneurship is ever going to be a success. There’s a powerful, kinetic force moving through this very exciting film, one which indulges in the idiosyncrasies of its character instead of its location. Bahrani’s faithful reliance on Balram as narrator, presumably using a great deal of material from the book, feels like a bit of overkill, there’s enough cheekiness in the manner by which the story plays out that we don’t need the hero also telling us where to find the dramatic irony in every turn of the plot, but it doesn’t take away from the rich abundance of incident that keeps you interested in seeing the story through.