Review: The White Tiger (2021)

Director/Screenwriter: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkummar Rao, Vedant Sinha, Vijay Maurya
Genres: Comedy, Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, violence, and sexual material
Release Dates: 1/13/21 (Theatres); 1/22/21 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2h 5min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Where to Watch: Netflix
Oscar Nomination(s): Possible–Adapted Screenplay; Long-Shot–Actor (Gourav), Supporting Actress (Chopra Jonas)

The White Tiger is sort of like the anti-Slumdog Millionaire, as I’ve heard other film critics call it. It’s also similar to the Oscar-winning Parasite, and aspires to reach the mastery of tone of Bong Joon Ho’s film but never quite gets there. The story is akin to that of Parasite, in that a young, poor man (played here by newcomer Adarsh Gourav) gets involved in the lives of a wealthy family and befriends the couple for whom he is the driver. Sound somewhat familiar? In the case of this Indian-set film — which is in both English and Hindi — the proganist’s motives are relatively pure, although he is also in it for the money and to experience a lifestyle completely different from his own. 

I struggled with the unlikable nature of Gourav’s character, despite his difficult upbringing and treatment by the wealthy family for whom he works, both of which lead him to commit an act which is actually fairly predictable. That’s not to say that Gourav isn’t good in the role; in fact, he’s quite remarkable, and a real find. I’m interested in seeing what he does next, and he really is best in show here. He managed to make me emphasize with him — to a slight degree, at least — even when his behavior was unwarranted. Gourav nails all of the dramatic and comedic emotional beats of the film, and his transformation from the beginning to the end is believable enough. I didn’t particularly like his voice-over, although I imagine this is how writer/director Ramin Bahrani aimed to successfully adapt the book on which the film is based.

Bahrani’s script is actually quite clever at times, and I found the relatively fast pace of the first half of The White Tiger to be fun, fresh, and interesting. However, his script nearly falls apart in the second half (and, especially, in the third act), after a major character has left [no spoilers!]. Then, the film takes it unfortunate time in leading up to the climax, which was probably meant to be shocking but my reaction was more like, “oh, finally!” It would’ve been better to maintain the near-frantic pacing of the earlier scenes, which are never boring. Also, the mixed tones don’t always work for me, despite the cast’s best efforts. 

On that note, let me discuss a couple of the other actors, who just can’t keep up with Gourav. But, they’re really not supposed to, as we’re essentially mean to dislike the wealthy couple, played by Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas (who co-produced the film). Rao is perfectly fine, although, once again, he’s easily outshined by Gourav. Chopra proves she possesses solid acting chops — I guess she’d already proven that in Bollywood, but now she has done so in the U.S. — but I was disappointed with her character’s writing. I wanted to know more about her and her opinions; sometimes she seems to be as patronizing of Gourav’s character as is her husband, and at other times she’s kind and thoughtful. I’m hoping she gets some meatier roles in the future, preferably ones with better character arcs. 

I don’t always mind films that are longer than two hours, but I feel like this one could have been cut by 15-20 minutes. Also, the ending was disappointing, perhaps because we’d already seen glimpses of it earlier in the film (hence, the voiceover). I wasn’t sure what exactly was Bahrani’s goal here, and what message he’s trying to convey. And, yet, the journey is quite interesting, and it’s a rather fascinating look into Indian culture and caste system in particular. Of course, Gourav’s star-making performance elevates the film, too.