Rather than recalling Bahrani’s past strengths, The White Tiger only serves to draw out the director’s worst instincts.
Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has long focused on issues of class in his works, examining how the economic factors created by U.S. capitalist structures shape and subsequently control the lives of his characters. In some instances, these themes are so delicately woven into the DNA of his stories that their impact is recognized rather reflectively. In others, the effects are blunt, the impetus that steers his characters toward tragedy and/or enlightenment. Bahrani’s latest film, an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s critically-acclaimed 2008 novel The White Tiger, certainly falls into the latter category, but it adds a new wrinkle to the formula by setting the story in India, where the ideals of socialism and capitalism have a long and contentious history. Whatever thematic subtlety Bahrani once possessed completely vacated the premises with 2015’s 99 Homes, a downward trend that unfortunately continues here. Part of that lies with the novel itself, which features a protagonist who explicitly details his struggles within the Indian caste system, lamenting how money is the only means of escape, and indicting his entire country in the process. Perhaps, it’s for precisely this reason that The White Tiger resonated with so many people across the globe: the impassioned assertion that poverty is a systemic problem that exists solely to keep the rich in positions of power is an idea that knows no borders.
Put differently — more cynically, maybe — it’s your basic underdog story given a fresh coating of exotic flair. That’s not to discount the joys of the novel itself, as Adiga’s unique writing style gives flavor to even the hoariest of clichés, and his complex central character is far from innocent — and more than a little selfish. But in chronicling the slow but epic rise of lowly servant Balram (Adarsh Gourav), as he works his way from rock splitter to personal driver of the rich to millionaire entrepreneur, Bahrani takes the inadvisable route that so many filmmakers do in adapting beloved novels and tries to cram as much material into his 126-minute runtime as he possibly can, resulting in a film that feels both overstuffed and rushed. The entire enterprise is like a checklist of the novel’s greatest hits, which does a great disservice to the delicate tonal balance that the novel achieves, and Bahrani never manages to get a handle on that tone, resulting in a film that continuously ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy to whiplash effect.
There are moments where Bahrani is able to capture the source material’s unique sense of humor, but, like much else here, it’s frustratingly inconsistent. The last fifteen minutes are especially curious, as the film rushes to the finish line in a mad sprint, and then ends on a note that is clearly intended to be tongue-in-cheek but instead comes across as misguided and awkward. The same can be said of Bahrani’s directing style, which favors camera rushes (think the Coen Brothers) and disorienting close-ups on his characters’ faces, but neither tic works in thematic step with what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish — although an argument could certainly be made that it’s just as broad as everything else on display. Aside from the bluntness of the messaging, the film’s simplicity is also problematic, it’s prevailing moral essentially amounting to: “Capitalism is cutthroat — literally!” That kind of obvious irony works on the page, but comes across as rather smug and self-satisfied in film form, and Bahrani does nothing to inject any added complexity. The White Tiger isn’t a complete misfire, as the bones of the story remain compelling, and the performances are strong across the board. It’s easy to see why the filmmaker was drawn to the material; it’s just too bad that it only served to once again draw out his worst instincts.
You can stream Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger on Netflix beginning on January 22.