Does The White Tiger movie accomplish its goal?

Balram from the White Tiger using toothpaste for the first time

The following review contains spoilers for The White Tiger movie.

After hearing positive reviews for The White Tiger, a book by Aravind Adiga that received the Man Booker Prize, I immediately put it on hold at my local library. During my wait, the movie was released on Netflix, so I decided to watch it and write a review for The Hatchet.

The novel aimed to depict the reality of living in India as a person of a lower caste and class. As Balram Halwai, the protagonist of the book, puts it “India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness.” The book was lauded for its genuine nature and the way it grounded readers in reality—something that is quite interesting considering that Adiga is from an upper-class family and has never experienced life in the Darkness. 

The movie, directed by Ramin Bahrani, stars Adarsh Gourav, an upper-caste actor, as the lower-caste protagonist. Though caste may not be as important in the United States, where I have grown up, it still affects the lives of those in India, and it’s important to find actors that can accurately represent the experiences of the characters being portrayed.

On January 13, 2021, the movie was released on Netflix. I sat on my couch, staring intently at the television, hoping to be enlightened by the action on-screen. Two hours and five minutes later, the movie had ended. I had expected an epiphany, a moment of understanding and realization, but there was none. Because the movie left no lasting impression on me, I believe that it fails in its goal: to share Adiga’s story with the masses.

The movie’s main and possibly only strength is its use of clever metaphors and the striking, often gruesome images that follow. In one scene, Balram compares his life to that of a rooster. His voice floats in the background: “I understood in this moment, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India. Later, I came to realize why. The greatest thing to come out of this country in its 10,000 year history…the rooster coop.” On-screen, a butcher is shown killing chickens, gore on display. Here, Balram uses the metaphor of a rooster coop to describe the way Indian servants are stuck in their respective societal roles and to detail how difficult it is to better one’s life while living in the Darkness. In another scene, viewers see Balram baring his teeth, which represent the fangs of a white tiger, his mouth covered in foaming toothpaste. It is the first time he’s ever used toothpaste, and he is trying to scrub the yellow grime off his teeth, but he is unable to, a metaphor for the difficulty of leaving the Darkness. Scenes like this continued to pop up, startling me while demonstrating the reality of Balram’s life. The movie does not hold back on the intense visuals, and it’s a risk that pays off, pushing viewers to keep watching. 

I did keep watching, but beyond these scenes, I found nothing worthwhile. The story itself is painful and in a strange way, beautiful. It has enough twists and turns to satisfy the audience, but it’s not enough to make up for the lack of proper execution.

The choppy transitions and the sudden jumps from one scene to the next before closing the previous one off in a clean manner are disorienting and made me feel slightly carsick. In this movie, every minute moment is dragged out. This could have been intentional, but it doesn’t charm viewers like the imagery does. And then there is the sudden ending: two minutes ago, Balram was a servant, living in the shadows of his master, and moments later, he’s a rich man.

In a couple of scenes, viewers see Balram and Ashok, Balram’s master, talking and laughing. We watch as their friendship blossoms. All of a sudden, Balram begins to despise Ashok, eventually making the choice to kill him. It becomes difficult for viewers to empathize with Balram when the shift in his attitude towards Ashok feels rushed. On top of this hurried transition, the last thing viewers see is an off-putting, energetic dance number that doesn’t sync with the mundane nature of the other scenes, making us wonder if we’re even watching the same movie. 

The story itself is an important one to tell. Millions of real people suffer through situations similar to the ones the protagonist faces, but unlike Balram—who kills Ashok and steals his money to escape from the Darkness—they choose to preserve their moral integrity. The movie asks the readers many important, thought-provoking questions: If you were Balram, would you choose morality and poverty, or would you abandon your ethics for a better life? Do you care more about yourself or your family? Is it worth living in the Light if your means are/were unethical? I still think about these questions, a testament to the movie’s excellent portrayal of moral ambiguity in its many forms.

Beyond the stunning visuals and the unique questions the movie poses, the film adaptation fails to give viewers a satisfying story and a protagonist they can empathize with. It ultimately falls flat, failing to achieve its goal.

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