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‘The White Tiger’: Another ‘nobody’ dreams big in India, and he’s the kind of slumdog who bites

Flashy, fractured fairy tale follows brutal compromises made by a man unwilling to be a victim.

The ambitious Balram (Adarsh Gourav) makes some shocking moves over the course of “The White Tiger.”
Netflix

“In India there are only two kinds of people: those with big bellies and those with small bellies. I was trapped, and don’t believe for a second there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it.”

And with those words, our narrator and anti-hero addresses the “Slumdog Millionaire” in the room and tells us that while “The White Tiger” might have superficial similarities to Danny Boyle’s 2008 global hit and winner of eight Oscars, this particular story of an ambitious Indian “nobody” who climbs to the top is going to be much darker and more cynical — a fractured fairy tale about the scar-inducing sacrifices and the brutal moral compromises one young man makes as he refuses to let anyone stop him in his quest to become a force to be reckoned with.

Directed with a “Goodfellas”-like structure and flashy style by the greatly talented Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop”) and adapted from the prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, “The White Tiger” stars Adarsh Gourav in a spectacular feature film acting debut as Balram Halwai, the poor son of a rickshaw driver who talks his way into a job as a limo driver for a wealthy scion named Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his Brooklyn-born wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), who have just returned from an extended stay in America to live in Bangalore. Even as Balram is treated like a slave by Ashok’s rich, powerful and corrupt father (Mahesh Manrekar), he ingratiates himself with Ashok, who at times treats Balram more like a best friend than an employee, and with Pinky, who encourages him to follow his dreams, break free from the caste system and carve out his own path to success and happiness.

The wealthy Ashok (Rajkummar Rao, right) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) hire Balram (Adarsh Gourav) as their driver.
Netflix

Balram’s near-friendship with Ashok and Pinky leads to a night of partying where Balram literally switches places with Pinky, with Pinky taking the wheel of the car — but when the night ends in tragedy, Balram is hit with a stark and life-changing reminder that he’s still the help and at the service of his masters. From that point on, “The White Tiger” grows ever bleaker and rougher and more violent, with Balram taking his life into his own hands, even if that means getting blood on those hands. We know (or at least we think we know) where this story is going, thanks to the time-hopping nature of the storyline, and yet certain actions taken by Balram come as a cold hard slap to our sensibilities. Just when we’re firmly in his corner, we’re repulsed by him. Just when we’ve come to loathe him, we can understand why he does the things he does. (Well. At least most of the things he does.)

“The White Tiger” has an icy-cool, slick visual style and an unsubtle but effective running commentary about social warfare and how some who are born into a life sentence of victimhood refuse to accept that sentence, consequences be damned. It’s an uneven but memorable tale about a young man with impressive survival instincts and a conscience that shifts to fit the circumstances.