On the shortlist of cursed subgenres is the Explaining India prestige film: sprawling stories for foreign viewers whose only impressions of the country are from '90s Bollywood or Merchant-Ivory productions. These are usually adapted from a book that’s won some international award. They’re often by foreign directors, or Indian ones based abroad. And though they’re set in India, the primary language spoken is English.
After Slumdog Millionaire, Midnight’s Children and A Suitable Boy, The White Tiger is the latest prize-winning Indian novel to be adapted for the screen—in English. You might wonder why this is a problem: after all, the books are in English too. But there’s a big difference between reading words on a page and hearing them aloud. It’s easier to imagine characters in a book speaking their native language even when the dialogue is written in English—something that’s impossible when it’s spoken. Also, on the page, the reader controls the accents, (BBC's A Suitable Boy realised this too late).
Language and speech are the first, second and third of The White Tiger’s problems. Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning 2008 novel, the film, by American director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop), is the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a poor, backward caste village boy who manages to get himself hired as the driver of an America-returned couple, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). He follows them from Dhanbad to Gurgaon, all the while juggling his conflicting desire to serve his “master” and raise himself up in life. Balram speaks with family members and others of his class in Hindi, but addresses Ashok, his boorish brother (Vijay Maurya) and father (Mahesh Manjrekar) in the sort of stilted but ornate English that Indians often speak in foreign productions.
Balram’s voiceover, too, is in English, Adiga’s prose diminishing remarkably in the journey from page to screen. “India is two countries in one: an India of light and an India of darkness” is an observation so trite it should be at the top of the banned phrases memo they give outsiders writing about India. Effective sentences in a novel don't necessarily make for effective lines in a film, something Bahrani—who’s been friends with Adiga since their undergraduate days at Columbia University—can’t seem to accept. I nearly choked when I heard, “A good servant must know his masters from end to end, from lips to anus.”
A more potent metaphor is when Balram compares the lot of hired workers in India, loyal to employers who mistreat them, to roosters in a coop at a meat shop, seeing their kind slaughtered yet never rebelling. He is an example of this himself, verbally and physically abused by Ashok’s brother and father. Ashok is kind to him, though not enough to fight his family; Pinky is the only one who’s appalled by his treatment. The White Tiger is, to its credit, hardly enamoured of India; the focus always returns to inequalities of caste, class and religion. But there’s little to alleviate the sour social criticism: no beauty, no propulsion. Balram’s occasional dream sequences could have been a chance for some style and wit to creep in, but Bahrani shoots these straight, as if to exaggerate would be disrespectful.
Rao goes all in on his American accent, with dazzlingly weird results—"caste", which Indians pronounce as "käst", becomes an Americanized "kæst". His pairing with Chopra, who speaks in real life like her character in the film, makes him sound even worse (the most successful Indian actors in films abroad have been those who never felt the need to mask their English speaking style: Om Puri, Anupam Kher, Irrfan Khan). Gourav, who gave notice of his talent in Rukh, is alternately sympathetic, sly and ruthless. In his attempts to forcibly alter his expected life trajectory, Balram is a cousin to Serious Men’s Ayyan Mani, smart enough to play on the vanity of those in power to improve his station.
Serious Men—another adaption from a famous novel, but in Hindi and with an Indian director—is a useful comparison. Sudhir Mishra's film is similarly caustic but a good deal more fluent and relatable than Bahrani's, and its understanding of caste politics and social mobility has more nuance (it’s also much funnier). Neither does The White Tiger have the manic energy of Slumdog Millionaire, though it does make a sly reference to it (“There isn’t a million-rupee gameshow you can win”). Balram’s ascent to power isn’t unbelievable but it is abrupt, achieved in a manic 10 minutes. He describes himself as going from “social entrepreneur to business entrepreneur”, adding wryly, “It was not easy.” Instead of dwelling on his degradations at the hands of his employers, a little more of this journey would have been welcome.
Bollywood is conspicuous by its absence in Bahrani's film. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro plays on TV, but mainstream films, the kind Balram and Ashok might watch, are missing. At a critical juncture, the voiceover speculates about what a “typical Hindi film” might do in that situation. But The White Tiger never reaches a vantage point high enough to be able to look down on Hindi films, typical or otherwise.