Maybe it’s Dickens who makes The White Tiger such a brilliant rude awakening. For Oliver Twist and David Copperfield — beloved poor boys made good — life in Victorian England could be pitiless. But fate still saved the day, chance and human kindness the authors of a happy ending.
When Aravind Adiga’s bestseller was published in 2008, winning the Booker Prize the same year, it too concerned a young man ascending from poverty, this time in modern India. But now, for all our love of the Dickensian, fate had changed its terms and conditions. The only way of balancing the scales was to apply a thumb — hard. So too in the new film adaptation, which adds a finger jammed into the nearest socket. The energy is a rush. The movie is plenty to chew on.
Our hero is Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), chauffeur and servant to a wealthy landlord. The film has been directed by Ramin Bahrani, faithful to the source material in plot, dialogue and wildcat irreverence. Much of the story takes place in the Delhi of 2007. Wall Street is about to blow, but Balram sees only the economy in front of him. There are those who drive, he learns, and those who are driven. Everyone else must take their chances in the road.
“America is so yesterday,” he tells us. If the sardonic voiceover reminds you of Scorsese, so too will the drum-solo rhythm. Later will come dreams of entrepreneurial triumph. But for the young Balram, it will be enough just to get out of the village his family have died early deaths in for generations. To do that, he must become a driver, a transformation owing more to Sun Tzu than Slumdog Millionaire. Finally, he gets a uniform, a meagre salary and thumps to the head should he displease his boss.
Bahrani delivers a manic, inspired, Russian doll of a movie. The outer layer is a riotous black comedy of class and ambition — the landlord’s eldest son a thuggish consigliere, his youngest westernised, married to a New Yorker. (The couple are nicely played by Bollywood stars Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra.) Nested within that is another story, one about the queasy psychology of master and mastered. Murder and revenge drive the plot: mixed in too is another giant of English letters, Harold Pinter, and his headgame of how the other half lives, The Servant.
Inside that is an allegory for the economic rise of India, played out in a Delhi adorned with the logos of Siemens and IBM. “You are the new India!” Balram is teased. Like every task he is given, it is one he treats with earnest reverence. On the rare occasions Bahrani loses focus, Gourav holds the film together. Remarkably, this is his first starring role — a fitting note of novelty in a movie where the future doesn’t wait for your permission.
On Netflix from January 22