2021 Oscar Reviews: The White Tiger

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…

The White Tiger

[1 nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ramin Bahrani]

This is the first film I’ve watched since the real nominees were announced earlier this week. It’s also a film I had never heard of before. But with its sole nomination being in a writing category, I had a decent feeling that I would like it. If it hasn’t been clear from my other reviews (of both books and movies), I typically value story and character development above all else. These are virtues I find lacking in some of the best picture nominees. But a film nominated for nothing but writing tends to be right up my alley.

I was not disappointed, though I admit that at first I was worried. I do not know the source material for this movie (apparently a novel by Aravind Adiga), but the film relies so heavily on a long narrative voiceover that I can only assume most of the narration is pulled straight from the book. As straight text, such as from a book, the monologue is great! But it was used to heavily at the beginning that I was skeptical about this writing award. Is the whole movie going to be this? Just an audiobook with moving pictures for illustration? But over time we subtly drop the storytelling voiceover and focus more and more on the real people and actions in our story, instead of the carefully-crafted veneer of narration that gives our tale a nice gloss. Roughly halfway through the film, everything suddenly flips. As our protagonist’s lighthearted tale becomes darker and more real, so does the film. We hear less of his excited commentary, and instead watch him crumble. It’s an excellent integration of elements from both the source material, and the endless possibility of film. In short, it’s the opposite of this year’s play-based nominees, One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which both cling strongly to the original content without adding much originality. Miami still somehow scored itself a nomination, which frankly makes my head totally explode.

What of all the non-nominated elements? Why just a writing nod? Did the rest of the film suck? No, not at all. If anything, I’m disappointed it didn’t get more attention. I was particularly impressed by the leading performance of Adarsh Gourav. Gourav plays Balram, a poor servant from the middle of nowhere who dreams of climbing the non-existent social ladder of India’s archaic caste system. If this sounds similar to 2008’s best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, that’s because it is. So much so that Tiger even takes a little swipe at it, saying something along the lines of “there’s no magic gameshow to save you.” Unlike in Slumdog, though, each time Balram uses his ingenuity and ambition to climb a little higher, though, he becomes more and more aware of just how low he still remains. No matter what he does or how hard he tries, shit just gets worse. It’s a touch balance to play someone who is both so ambitious and so pathetic, but Gourav pulls it off perfectly. My heart was breaking for him the whole time, even when he was acting his worst. Boo to the academy for no nomination here! Priyanka Chopra does a solid job as Balram’s foil Pinky, an Indian-American who comes storming into his world with her western privilege, morals ,and sensibilities that often clash with Balram’s resignation to the caste system.

Everything else was great. I really can’t think of any complaints. The story was interesting. The cinematography was solid, bringing its own contributions to the clash between light India and dark India (Balram’s words). The pacing and direction all worked. The music and soundtrack were bumping. Overall, I think this film was great, and definitely worth a watch. Just be prepared for some serious emotions, and bring along plenty of spare pitty because you’re gonna need it

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