Review: Rags-to-riches tale 'The White Tiger' has a mighty roar

'Slumdog Millionaire' it ain't, a fact the film is more than happy to point out itself

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

An electrifying tale of creed, class and crime, "The White Tiger" is a story with teeth — and bite. 

Director Ramin Bahrani's slickly told, darkly humorous drama unfolds like a gangster epic, detailing the rise of an Indian man from the slums to the penthouse. It's a familiar arc, but Bahrani's telling — he adapted the screenplay from Aravind Adiga's novel — is rich with details and a deep sense of humanity that make the story feel at once universal and specific.

Adarsh Gourav and Rajkummar Rao in "The White Tiger."

Adarsh Gourav plays Balram, who grows up poor in the village of Laxmangarh and works his way to Delhi, where he becomes a driver and a servant for the wealthy Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). Ashok is a mover and a shaker in all the ways that Balram is not. But Balram is loyal, and that loyalty eventually gives way to ruthless ambition once he sees how disposable he is to his boss.

That happens after a drunken night of partying where Ashok and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), are driving through the streets at high speeds and accidentally strike a child. Balram dutifully helps Ashok out of his mess. But when he awakens to the ways he's being used, his instincts kick in and set in motion a plot to take what he feels is owed to him. 

Bahrani plays with the story structure so we see early on where Balram ends up, it's just a matter of connecting the dots. But the way the story unfolds is riveting, and it's fascinating to watch the magnificent Gourav's transformation from sympathetic to savage. 

As for any comparisons to "Slumdog Millionaire," "The White Tiger" stops them dead in their tracks. "Don't believe for a second there's a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it," Balram says in voiceover, taking aim at Danny Boyle's blockbuster in describing India's caste system. It's the same get-out-of-our-way attitude that makes "The White Tiger" so memorable.


'The White Tiger'


Rated R: for language, violence and sexual material

Running time: 125 minutes

In theaters now, on Netflix Jan. 22