‘White Tiger’ is a brilliant film, but it doesn’t get everything right. Why did the film end up being a hit-or-miss? What makes the film not perfect?
‘White Tiger’ arrived in our lives with much fanfare. However, very early on, critics caught onto something that just didn’t sit right with them. Despite brilliant performances and a story that has got the author a Booker, ‘White Tiger’ won’t be one of the award shows’ forerunners next season. Why is that? Where did this seminal movie go wrong?
- ‘White Tiger’ is one of the best films to come out of modern India
- What makes ‘White Tiger’ work, and what makes it not work?
- Is ‘White Tiger’ the Netflix film that would further its Indian participation
The story behind the story
‘White Tiger’ made splashes on Indian bookshelves after winning the Man Booker Prize. Not only was it a book very close to India’s soul, it discussed problems with money and caste that permeates Indian society but isn’t discussed often. Through a life of pain, servitude, and torture, the main character, Balram, has to figure his way into the higher echelons of Indian society.
However, even back then, people were sceptical about what the story being told was.
In his review of the book for NYTimes, Akash Kapur said,
“There is an absence of human complexity in “The White Tiger”, not just in its characters but, more problematically, in its depiction of a nation that is, in reality, caught somewhere between Adiga’s vision and the shinier version he so clearly — and fittingly — derides”.
‘White Tiger’ is not a problematic film, and it tries to capture the problems in modern India through the lens of a disenfranchised man. However, Adiga and the filmmaker are not interested in Balram so much as they’re interested in the country’s overwhelming story.
The ‘White Tiger’s’ missed opportunity lies in fleshing out the characters and giving the story something to hold onto. And in doing so, it creates a narrative that doesn’t look too good on screen.
One of the most potent scenes in a recent DC movie, ‘Batman Versus Superman’, comes when Bruce Wayne has to rush back into falling debris to save a child. It’s a showcase of how in the world of Gods, men can suddenly feel useless and lost.
While Bahrani is a much more capable filmmaker than Snyder by far, his film language often lacks the story’s force. Take, for example, the opening scene. Instead of focusing on the stark differences between the wealthy areas of Delhi and its poorest ones, he chooses to create a set of joy.
Of course, as a conscious choice made for the western audience, it is not bad. However, ‘The White Tiger’ does not belong to the Americans alone. The story about India featuring Indians is moulded into something that the Americans can digest, and that’s the most problematic approach in the film.
Often, the dialogues are stunted, and Bahrani is pleased to skirt around the book’s central thesis, which points out the prominent caste discrimination throughout Indian life. When the book was released, it was heavily critiqued for being “poverty porn”, focusing on the older India, which was entrenched in poverty and not the modern India of start-ups and increasing money.
However, Adiga rightly stuck with his central thesis and made a point to disparage the reviewers falling back to the stereotypical ideas of modern India.
‘The White Tiger’ content lacks these ideas, having the story moulded for the American audience and catering to them throughout. So, the jittery conflict centred around multiple intersections in Balram’s life becomes passe, and a more straightforward central narrative is promoted.
Hollywood and India
No ‘The White Tiger’ review can be written without discussing Hollywood. Americans and foreign nationals, in general, have an obsession with a dual idea of India. On the one hand, there’s been the big promotion of the idea of a poor India (look at ‘Slumdog Millionaire’) and on the other hand, it’s a place of mystics and yoga (looking at you ‘Eat. Pray. Love’).
Adiga’s novel was set to prove both of these notions as untrue. It was focused on discrimination and how it intersects with the rich lives that people live. However, the movie industry likes simple narratives, so that’s what ‘The White Tiger’ falls back to.
Arvind Adiga is a prominent author, and Netflix has done an excellent service by finally adapting him in a climate that keeps getting political. We need to ask, though, if only appealing to the foreign film-watchers is enough. Would an Indian watching this get an accurate view of the country? Netflix has written a good film but failed to put it in the proper context.
‘The White Tiger’ has many things that you can love about it. However, it’s not a new narrative that you can go back to and enjoy. While Balram and Pinky might be archetypes we see in real life, the society they live in is quite different from that of the film.
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