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The White Tiger

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Doubting driver’s competence when they end up in Islamabad, Pakistan instead of Jaipur, India.

Synopsis:  An impoverished young man in India tries to get ahead.

Desperate people do desperate things. Greedy people do greedy things. Elvish people do elvish things. You get the idea. In The White Tiger there are many desperate and/or greedy people. Not so many elvish folk though.  One more aphorism…

White Tigers do White Tiger-ish things. Perplexed? Then, as a cool cat says in The Aristocats, Let me elucidate here. According to Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning book upon which the movie is based, a white tiger is “the rarest of animals- the creature that comes along only once in a generation.” The story’s “white tiger” is an ambitious young man from rural India, Balram (Adarsh Gourav). A gifted student, his family’s crushing poverty forced him to leave school and work while still a child.

We see him laboring as a young man at a ramshackle tea shop, pondering the lack of a future for the poor. In a voiceover he says that he, and they, are like chickens in a coop awaiting slaughter.

One day city gangsters arrive to do their regular shakedown of the village’s inhabitants. Balram hatches a plan to become the driver for the gangster patriarch’s son, Ashok, a twenty-something guy who has been living in America. But first he needs to learn to drive.

Balram begs his granny, the family’s leader, for the cash he needs for driving lessons. She looks mild-mannered from a distance, but granny is definitely not nice. In fact she was the one who set him to work and didn’t let him get a scholarship. She grudgingly agrees to his request only because Balram says she will have respect when he is the driver for an important man. She yells at him that he will be expected to send his money home.

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Tentatively discussing the Jonas Brothers’ terrible music, they each offer their choice for ‘worst song.’

Balram is a quick study and masters the aggressive driving style he’ll need to survive the streets of Delhi. His old driving instructor helpfully hurls colorful curses out the window at drivers who would dare to cut them off. Balram soon flatters his way into the job he wants, although it pays very little.

The White Tiger does some heavy lifting with dissections of poverty, globalization, caste, and corruption. But this is no dry handbook. Instead the protagonist’s story becomes like a psychological thriller as Balram dodges a steady flurry of slings and arrows.

Our hero/anti-hero tells his story in the form of a letter to the Chinese premier who will soon be visiting India. Balram says that he is an entrepreneur and he would like to make business deals with the Chinese. First, he would like to explain his rise from poverty. We know that he has in fact become successful because he sits in a nice office composing the letter, finely dressed and availed of some quality moustache wax.

His new employer, Ashok, doesn’t like the way his father abuses the servants and tries to treat Balram decently, but he is incredibly patronizing. (I knew the dad would be horrible because he is the same guy who was the gangster in Slumdog Millionaire.) Ashok’s beautiful wife Pinky is ethnically Indian, but grew up in America. She too tries to be egalitarian. Pinky is played by Priyanka Chopra. I wasn’t interested in her show Quantico, but news of her romance with Jonas Brother Nick was unavoidable with pictures all over the media: on the red carpet dressed like Inspector Gadget with date Nick, wedding photos from their seemingly year-long celebration, with their dogs in Cali, et cetera. Little did I know she could act!

Balram plots his way up while avoiding the other drivers who call him “country mouse” and seeking as a servant to please his “master.” He spends his time polishing the car and rushing Ashok to various politicians’ estates where he pays them bribes on behalf of his father’s coal company. Even the jaded son is disgusted, saying: The world’s biggest “democracy.” What a joke.

Balram observes that it is hard to be free in India. In fact, employees seem to be treated as property and abused and degraded on the regular. He often talks about those born into the darkness (the poor and low caste) and those born into the light (the wealthy and privileged) — themes that will surely be explored in term papers on the book. I got scary chills when Balram explains,Those born into the light have the choice to be good.

Something very bad happens (shown at the start of the movie) that puts Balram between a rock and a hard place. But remember, he is a white tiger, so who better to survive the jungle?

P.S. White tigers are Bengal or Siberian Tigers with white & black -striped coats and blue eyes. They occur rarely in the wild. The partial albinism results from a defective, recessive gene that both parents must carry and pass on. Although White Tigers are popular attractions, reputable zoos do not breed the animals because continuous inbreeding is associated with immune deficiencies, spinal problems and mental impairments.

Tigers are an endangered species with the global population estimated to be as low as 2,500 individuals. In the United States alone there are approximately 5,000 captive tigers with only about 6% in reputable zoos and sanctuaries. Reputable facilities never allow tiger cub encounters with guests or require performances of the animals.

Movie Loon Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade: A-

Cut to the Chase: Fantastic lead performance, fast-paced with important ideas.

Humor Highlight: The poor old beggar woman in the market who bravely carries on seemingly unfazed after a stressed to the limits Balram hollers at her. Good on you, lady!

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