By Leah Greenblatt
January 05, 2021 at 07:59 PM EST
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Credit: ​SINGH TEJINDER​/NETFLIX

A sprawling Technicolor melodrama about class and caste and destiny set in modern-day India? Let the Slumdog Millionaire comparisons begin — or better yet, let The White Tiger's protagonist (Adarsh Gourav) slap them down in one telling maxim midway through: "Here in India there are only two kinds of people: those with big bellies and those with small bellies. I was trapped, and don't believe for a second there's a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it."

Certain parallels are still fair game: Like Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning 2008 juggernaut, White Tiger — directed by Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, Fahrenheit 451) and based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga — steeps a classic Horatio Alger tale in kinetic 21st-century dazzle and pop. (The film's first words, before a single line of dialogue is spoken, come booming from the speakers of a speeding SUV: It's Jay -Z, rapping over the sinuous bhangra beat of Panjabi MC's "Beware.")

The movie (in select theaters Jan. 8 and streaming Jan. 22 on Netflix) also has the indelible presence of Gourav, a largely unknown actor whose soulful combination of sheer will and vulnerability should, in a just world, win him the kind of accolades that helped make Slumdog's Dev Patel a star. He plays Balram, a boy born into the kind of abject poverty that is less a circumstance than a life sentence. But for a few rare dreamers — the kind exceptional enough to earn the name White Tiger — that outcome is elastic, as bendable as a spoon.

And so when the wealthy local landlord comes to his tiny village he sees the chance to insinuate himself, offering his (nonexistent) skills as a driver to the man's cosmopolitan son (Bollywood star Rajkummar Rao). Ashok seems kinder than the rest of them, and even has an American fiancée (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) who takes a gentle interest in him, freely asking after his hopes and dreams in a way that startles him. Does he have dreams, beyond the safety of servitude and a few extra rupees to send back to his family?

The narrative, framed as flashback, is structured in such a way that we know he does; that the little country mouse will in fact become a big cat, grabbing fate and opportunity by the tail. To get there though, he'll have to learn several lessons about class and loyalty the hard way, particularly after a rowdy night out with the employers he's come dangerously close to thinking of as friends ends in tragedy.

In those scenes Gourav is frankly devastating, his face a cracked mask of pain and disbelief. In others he's ruthless, calculating, even cruel. It's the kind of performance that can either make or break a movie like this, and the broad sweep of Tiger, with its cavalcade of outsize themes and incidents, sometimes threatens to overtake him. But through his eyes, Balram's singular story — in all its wild, exuberant improbability — roars to life. B+

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