NEW YORK — Seventy years have passed since cunning understudy Anne Baxter usurped glamorous star Bette Davis in “All About Eve.” Now, with “The White Tiger” (Netflix), comes a grittier, ethically unmoored take on ambition and deceit set in modern-day India.
Based on the 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga, the film exposes the seamy underbelly of the world’s largest democracy, where corruption is rife, and an antiquated caste system offers little hope for advancement for the poor underclass.
“India is two nations in one: an India of light and an India of darkness,” observes narrator and protagonist Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav). He dreams of escaping the shadowy slums of Delhi and the oppressive demands of his large extended family.
An opportunity arises at the compound of a wealthy landlord called The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). Impressed by Balram’s deference and charm, The Stork offers him a job as a driver.
With one foot in the door, Balram surveys his glittery new surroundings and likes what he sees. As chauffeur to The Stork’s party-hearty son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and Ashok’s American wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), he observes the decadent lifestyle of the rich and famous and studies their underhanded ways.
Fate intervenes one evening, and Balram suddenly holds all the cards to his employer’s future. He must deal these wisely, summoning the courage and wiles of “the rarest of jungle animals that comes along only once in a generation,” the white tiger.
Clever and conniving, Balram is a fast learner, and there are faint echoes of 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire” in his journey from rags to riches. However, writer-director Ramin Bahrani offers up a far more cynical tale with a shocking conclusion.
Since the tone of the narrative is one of amoral detachment, moreover, mature viewers need to bring careful discernment to bear as they watch Balram’s story unfold.
The film contains skewed values, onscreen and implied violence, sexual situations and banter as well as pervasive crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.