The White Tiger (Review)

You can sense the award winning novel at the heart of this adaptation. There are moments of fascinating subtext and well judged relationships – novelistic moments. Unfortunately, this film is overwhelmed by surface, and by aesthetic, turning an interesting exploration of the pernicious impacts of the Indian caste-system (and ingrained inequality) into something flashy but forgettable.

The film is also overwhelmed by narration. We have an intrusive, and somewhat unreliable, narrator that guides us through the film. He is the protagonist of this rags-to-riches film, told in retrospective style so that we know the only way is up – with caveats. This does dull the ascent, giving a sense of plodding inevitability that only really arises due to the film’s bloated length. It clocks in at just over two hours and contains a really compelling ninety minute movie. The back third really drags, and feels very clichéd – and ties itself up in nots in terms of message. There are subtle insights under the surface throughout but the film builds to a moment of sound and fury that signifies, well, nothing: it’s a a very vague ‘systemic inequality bad’ moment that is hampered by feeling rushed (making the bloated runtime more frustrating).

This battle between surface and subtext exists throughout. Again, there is overt evidence of a great book here, but little is gleaned from it through cinema. If anything, the cinematic expression obfuscates. There is a kinetic nature to the filmmaking: moving cameras, edgy angles, blaring pop music and bright coloured lights. It all feels flashy and filmic and is at odds with the realist themes the film’s heart. There are times where it just looks too much like a film to the extent that the emotional resonance is lost. This is especially apparent when depicting the juxtapositions between the disgustingly wealthy and the struggling underclass that results from them. There are locations that pertain to each but all places are covered with the same cinematic gloss. Where the film needs grit and texture, it just has sheen.

There are cool things here. An opening moment seems like a smart nod to Aparajito, in which protagonist Apu’s life was defined by the availability of education at a young age, taking him out of an area similar to where the protagonist of The White Tiger is from. Here, we have a scene linking to Aparajito but followed with a denial; that classic shows what education can do and this film highlights how that fundamental right is still a rarity. This shows not how things can go, but how they do often do.

This important message, sadly, is belied by a film with too much attention to surface and style. Its attempts at flair are striking but the film is never truly beautiful. It looks expensive but this is not additive to the film, nor is it really poetic in expression. And, while there are spirited performances and relevant insights, this film falls into the ranks of the broadly forgettable.

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