When young Balram Halwai stood up in his small Indian village school room and read the sentence printed on the classroom blackboard, the visiting education official looked at him with surprise. All the other dirty local children could barely read Hindi, but Balram fluidly read English.
“You are a White Tiger,” the man told the boy. “The rarest of animals that comes along only once in a generation.” Of course, being from the lowest class and one of the poorest villages meant that Balram was still the equivalent of dung to most people. But that white tiger pronouncement was something special, and it drove the young boy forward.
Now, as a young man, Balram has a story to tell. It’s a story of breaking free from his family’s low expectations and its matriarchal power structure. It tells of how he learned how to drive and became a chauffeur for a rich master.
Balram’s story involves corruption and listening closely, political bribery and vile betrayal. And as it unfolds, this often-dark tale argues that rebellion and even murder may be the only tools that an oppressed person has to break free from an unfairly rigged world.
Balram works hard to achieve his goals in a world that is structured to keep him from doing anything of the sort. Throughout most of his story, Balram’s hard work is accented by a positive, can-do attitude. (After one terrible act of betrayal, however, his anger saps away his goodness.) Balram’s “master,” Ashok, and his master’s wife, Pinky Madam, were both educated in America, and they both balk at the master/slave caste structure that permeates India’s society.
Balram notes that it is an Indian tradition to start a story by praying to a “higher power.” He then goes on to say that “the Muslims have one, the Christians have three, and we Hindus have 36 million.”
Accordingly, we see many idol-like representations of the myriad gods and goddesses to whom Hindus pray. Some are lined up on tables; others are larger figures seen in temples, while smaller figurines are sold by children and placed on a car’s dash. Several different people pray to these idols, including Balram, though he only does so to impress those around him. In fact, he openly tries to “out-pray” a man whose job he wants. He later blackmails the man for being a Muslim (a religion his employers hate).
Balram also uses some symbolic gestures when passing “spiritual sites,” and he teaches these gestures to his Americanized master and his wife. (They laugh and mimic the movements jokingly.)
A religious man chants at a funeral. And at a particular low point in Ashok’s life, Balram tells him, “You must believe in God, sir. My granny says that if you believe in God then good things will happen.” Balram makes note of a poem written by a Muslim author.
Pinky Madam leans over the car seat, revealing cleavage that Balram has a hard time looking away from. She and Ashok also get drunk and make out in the back seat of the car as Balram is driving. He watches their movements and looks closely at her bare shoulder that’s revealed in the process, while rubbing his own clothed crotch. Later, Balram listens as the pair make love in their bedroom.
Someone talks of a man “dipping his beak” in his wife. A man offers to find and supply women for Balram’s master. And some other drivers talk lustfully about passing women’s bodies. In his anger, Balram privately calls someone a eunuch and talks of having sex with the man’s mother.
There are several rap songs in the movie’s soundtrack that include sexualized lyrics involving oral sex and sex in a bathroom.
Balram compares the caste system of modern India to a rooster coop—a stacked-cage construct filled with roosters that look on as one-by-one they are grabbed and butchered by their owner.
To illustrate this point, we watch as a rooster is pulled out of a coop, has its head lopped off, its feathers ripped out and its body torn into chunks. Later, we see that illustration applied to humans, too (albeit in a less brutal form). People are shot, stabbed and bashed with bricks. One man is stabbed repeatedly and has his throat slashed with a broken bottle. (Blood is splashed in all cases.)
Balram points out that the rich masters keep lower caste members in line almost purely through the threat that their family members will be bloodily murdered if they don’t obey.
While drunk, Pinky Madam hits and runs over a small child running in the road. We see the body laying in the darkly shadowed street. Balram is tasked with scraping the cloth and gore off the vehicle’s front bumper.
Balram gets slapped and shoved around on several occasions. And one time, while being manhandled, he pushes his drunken master down to the ground. Balram’s father comes down with tuberculosis and spits blood on the ground. After Balram’s father dies, his body is burned in a funeral pyre, and as the flames burn the body, a young Balram sees his father’s feet move and believes that he came back to life.
Balram slaps a young boy, giving him a bloody lip. A beggar displays his leg stump while begging at car windows. Pinky Madam tells a story of her mother being held at gunpoint.
There is foul language aplenty here in both English and in subtitled Hindi. There are some 30 f-words, including about ten paired with either “mother” or “sister.” We hear five exclamations of the s-word and multiple uses of “b–ch,” “a–hole,” “jacka–” “homo,” “p—y” and “f-ggot” Someone talks repeatedly of “buggering.”
God’s name is misused seven times.
The rich family members regularly drink alcohol. And in some cases, they get staggeringly drunk. Later on, Balram follows that lead, stealing booze from his employer and buying bottles of alcohol and drinking them while driving.
A number of people smoke cigarettes and cigars, including Balram’s master, Ashok. And in one instance, it’s implied that Ashok is smoking a joint.
Someone betrays and murders a man, and the film fully justifies that action in light of an unfair caste system. The killer declares that he feels no guilt for his actions.
A rich family gives multiple millions of rupees to government officials as bribes and bribes a local judge after a car accident. Balram lies on multiple occasions. He also starts using other Indian driver’s techniques to cheat his master and steal money.
Balram encounters a man squatting with no pants in the dirt. He drops his own pants and squats there, too. (Nudity kept clear of the camera’s view.) The two men laugh at each other.
“For the poor, there are only two ways to get to the top: crime and politics,” says narrator Balram in this scathing, dark-humored, dissection of modern Indian class divisions. And he makes it clear that crime and politics are essentially cut from the same putrid, corrupt cloth.
That may suggest that The White Tiger is only focused on the dark side. But actor Adarsh Gourav and writer/director Ramin Bahrani make their storytelling chauffer into a generally appealing and watchable guy.
Balram is indeed one of those once-in-a-generation white tigers: A man smart enough and determined enough to break free from the onerous Indian caste system that we’re told is trapping millions.
That said, we are driven down a pretty bumpy and cynical cinematic highway here. The movie dialogue—in both Hindi and English—is corrosively foul. We see people openly abused and murdered in the streets while corrupt authorities turn a blind eye. And this film pointedly justifies any dishonest or bloody act that might lead to breaking free from an oppressive way of life.
That may all add up to director Bahrani’s idea of cutting, street-level social commentary. But it’s no easy ride.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.