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The White Tiger review – Balzac-worthy satire of submission and power

This adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel about aspiration in modern India is teeming with energy and sadness

The White Tiger is a story of servitude, resentment and love – and what its hero calls “the contented smile that comes to the lips of a servant who has done his duty by his master”. He does a lot of smiling in this film, but this is about something other than contentment. It is a professional reflex and a personal holding pattern, a blank grin kept in place while the servant decides if he in fact hates his master, and while he also decides if he might somehow one day be the master himself. It is an ambiguous smile, which causes him to wonder if he hates the master behind a facade of loving, or loves this role-model behind a facade of hating. And this desperate aspirational cunning and survival-struggle is happening in India, which is shown to have the same ambiguously submissive attitude to the globalised employer forces of China, Britain and the United States, who all want India’s cheap labour for their outsourcing.

The drama is adapted by film-maker Ramin Bahrani from the 2008 bestseller and Booker prize winner by Aravind Adiga, and Bahrani also directs with terrific storytelling energy. It is powered by satirical pessimism about a feudal-gangster system depicted as alive and well in 21st-century India – thriving in parallel with the cynical exploitation and arrogance of other countries. Bahrani finds in this story the same battle with poverty that he gave us in Man Push Cart (2005) and a toxic mentor-mentee bromance to compare with his 99 Homes (2014), in which the hero also finds himself working for the people who humiliated his family.

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