“The white tiger is the rarest of animals that only comes around once in a generation,” shares Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) in Ramin Bahrani’s latest feature, “The White Tiger.” Balram originates from a small northern Indian village, Laxmangarh, where the nearest hospital is two days away. His father is a rickshaw puller. His brother (Sanket Shanware) grinds his days at the tea shop. And his granny (Kamlesh Gill) serves as the family’s elder. Balram is advanced for his adolescent age. He can already read English and partly write. He holds the words of the Great Socialist (Swaroop Sampat), the country’s political leader, that “any poor boy in any poor village can grow up to become the Prime Minister of India,” close to his heart. And make no mistake, Balram’s family is poor. 

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His father and his village pay a third of their wages as tribute to a money-grubbing local landowner known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). The forfeiture of earnings relegates the villagers permanently below the poverty line. Balram, especially after his father’s sudden death forces him to drop out of school and into hard labor to support his family, doesn’t know how he’ll ever rise from the underclass. His fight to escape what he terms, “the chicken coop,” will not only consume him, but throttle him to madness. 

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Director Ramin Bahrani—through acclaimed work like “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop”—has spent his career centering poverty, and other forgotten sectors of society as his cinematic subjects. His newest film, the Netflix distributed adaptation of Arvind Adiga’s novel of the same name, “The White Tiger,” revisits those familiar themes to less successful, and often dreary results.    

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A present-day wealthy Balram, manicured by his slick-back black hair and a curled mustache, narrates what amounts to his life story. See, it’s 2010, and the Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Wen Jiabao, is visiting Bangalore on a diplomatic mission. Balram has the Premier’s email (How? We don’t know) and decides to entreat the Premier into a business agreement by explaining how he rose from poverty to become an entrepreneur. The construct, this geezer typing the longest email in the history of emails while sitting in his neon-bathed office, is so far-fetched, even for a satire, that you just have to accept it.  

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That suspension of disbelief is fitting for a narrative so transfixed by binaries. Balram’s narration flashes back to pre-2007. Dressed in tattered yellow clothes, the young man smashes rocks at the tea shop; while his brother, on the other hand, is now married with a family too large to support. As Balram will later explain, while India once had 10,000 castes and destinies, there were now only two castes—men with big bellies and men with small bellies—and two destinies: Eat or be eaten. Balram believes there’s only one way out: To find a master who will treat a servant well. He believes he’s found such a master in the Stork’s youngest son, freshly arrived from America, and newly married, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). And by hook or by crook becomes his driver. 

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“The White Tiger” has so much story to it. Often Bahrani struggles to dislodge his film from the conventionalism of the novel. The result is a stream of events recalling the underhanded means Balram used to transcend from the number two driver to the number one family driver. And later cloy for his master’s affection by being his best friend, surrogate wife, servant, and psychiatrist. All the while he returns to the film’s binary thesis. First through the driver’s belief in the light and dark side of India—the haves and have-nots—and his own internal struggle: Should he emancipate himself and become his own master, or remain loyal to not only his employers, but also his family by sending them money and marrying his granny’s choice for a bride?  

The overwhelming string of narrative events obscures the salient points Bahrani wants to convey. In Ashok’s marriage to the American-Indian Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas), he tries to explicate the battle between westernized culture and those endeavoring to assimilate. While Ashok and Pinky do not believe in the caste system—working to treat Balram as a human rather than a slave—Ashok, when around his family, reverts to being his master. Bahrani also spotlights issues concerning widespread political corruption, lackluster educational opportunities for those living in poverty, a society that demands Balram eats others lest he is eaten himself. 

Balram’s unrelenting loyalty to Ashok, even in the face of maltreatment, exemplifies the aforementioned chicken coop. And even if Balram wanted to leave, he can’t because he risks the safety of his family. These themes, however, remain on the same periphery as the homeless people Balram sees from his driver’s side window while he’s transporting the privileged Ashok around the city. 

Even with an overloaded, over-explained plot, “The White Tiger” features some stunning visuals. For one, viewers are fully immersed in India: from the marketplaces to the ritzy hotels to the country’s rural and urban underbelly. Balram’s ill-fated high-speed road excursion with Ashok and Pinky through the deserted streets of Delhi, captured by Paolo Carnera’s enigmatic photography, connects the totemic setting to the murkiness in Balram’s identity. Another scene finds the driver forced to sign a confession. The lens hovers over an aggressively framed close-up of Gourav’s frozen contented visage, as though the lens is floating just above the truths and lies powering this scene. 

Gourav is equally up to the task of translating a story that almost feels untranslatable. His wild amazement at the luxe gold hotel Ashok calls home, his head cranking to the glistening heights of Delhi’s new modernist towers, his frustration when his life is nearly decimated, all rise above this clogged adaptation. As does the toxic homosocial relationship between Balram and Ashok. Though even that component overstays its welcome. 

Ultimately, “The White Tiger” is about a personal, political, and economic awakening by Balram. An awakening that’ll fire the driver away from slavery to true independence. Bahrani comes so close to explaining this driver’s awakening. So close to giving voice to the forgotten and ignored. But the road he travels is so fraught by narrative scenery, that Balram’s final victorious minutes are rendered to emotional inertness. For 128 minutes, the tension builds toward Balram’s revelation until it deflates, only to inflate, and build again. And with each deflation, we lose a bit of this character. We lose the politics. Nearly miss the economic message. And almost fall into a slumber. Bahrani’s lumbering satire “The White Tiger” needed more darlings killed, if only to allow a new breed to grow in its place. [C]  

“The White Tiger” arrives on Netflix on January 22.