By Arré Bench Jan. 22, 2021
Adarsh Gourav, in his debut feature film role, is up to the task of being the glue that holds The White Tiger together. His character is both the flawed hero and the unreliable narrator, existing on society’s underbelly first out of choice, and then out of compulsion.
Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas are both captivating actors, with years of experience, multiple awards, and several successful films between them. Both of them ably bring to life their characters in The White Tiger, which released on Netflix today, but it’s Adarsh Gourav, the debuting protagonist, who truly steals the limelight in the film. His acting stands out, feeling raw and real, a feat made more impressive by how authentic the performances are from the rest of the cast as well. From its lifelike supporting characters to enjoyable cameos, The White Tiger bursts with relatability – these fictional characters are like people we know. And Gourav’s Balram Halwai is not just a person, but the personification of cutthroat ambition and flexible scruples that we’re all familiar with in India.
The stark duality that characterises the lives of India’s haves and have-nots has been explored many a time on film, as have rags-to-riches tales of those with the drive and smarts to move from one end of the scale to the other. But while these stories are often romanticised, The White Tiger goes in the complete opposite direction, stripping away the platitudes and presenting the tale of a man who is forced to lie, cheat, and worse just to rise above his preordained position in an unjust system. Gourav’s ability to believably chart Balram’s inner journey – from wide-eyed “country mouse” to a remorseless entrepreneur – was crucial to the enjoyment of the film. If he couldn’t bring to life the protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, the entire film, with its cleverly incorporated commentary on classism and casteism in modern India, could have fallen flat.
Fortunately, there was no such danger here. Gourav, in his debut feature film role, is up to the task of being the glue that holds The White Tiger together. His character is both the flawed hero and the unreliable narrator, existing on society’s underbelly first out of choice, and then out of compulsion. In the film’s two-hour runtime, we see Balram go through wholesale changes on the surface, while retaining the same at-all-costs ambitious streak within. It’s a performance laden with subtle touches, such as the way Balram’s eyes dart toward an expensive bottle of booze in his boss’s hands before he collects himself, and how the expression changes from acceptance to anger even as an accommodating smile remains fixed on his face. It’s a masterful first appearance for Gourav, who shines even among a cast featuring veterans and critical darlings like Rao and Mahesh Manjrekar.
With an international crew, including American director Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger still manages to feel authentically Indian, with many of its scenes in Delhi being shot on-location to contribute to the sense of realism. Though the story of the film might be fictional, the India it is set in is very much true to life, which makes Balram Halwai’s tale of moral decay – already impactful thanks to Gourav’s craft – hit even harder.