Is there a payoff for being loyal servant? The question that ripples through writer/director Ramin Bahrani's richly realized adaptation of the best-selling novel, The White Tiger.
If you're familiar with Bahrani's work, beginning with movies such as Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, you won't be surprised to learn that the director explores the question with the skepticism, rue and powers of observation that are necessary to portray a deeply jaundiced society.
Initially, Bahrani invites us to immerse in an upbeat story about a young villager (Adarsh Gourav) who wants to become a chauffeur as a means of escaping the confinement and poverty of his home village.
Gourav's Balram lands a job with a wealthy family, quickly learning that advancement can require betrayal of the servants positioned immediately above him.
Both novelistic and cinematic, White Tiger is one of the strongest movies you'll find about the enormous wealth gap that defines contemporary India -- and perhaps many other places, as well.
In the early part of the story, Balram is tempted to think that he's a friend of his employer's son. Rich kid Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) behave as if they want to bridge the class gap that separates them from Balram.
Both have spent time in the US, but the hollow friendliness offered by Ashok and Pinky proves more than Balram can absorb as he distances himself from his former life, represented by a tyrannical grandmother (Kamlesh Gill) who's always willing to take him down a peg or two.
Ashok and Pinky open Balram's eyes to the world of privilege. They tell him that the economic future belongs to the yellow and brown men of China and India. America? Not any more.
We know that Balram will absorb the lesson because Bahrani uses a framing device that presents the story's main events in flashbacks that are narrated by Balram. In a letter to potential Chinese investors, he demonstrates that he's not only ambitious but astute. The naïveté of a clueless young driver has vanished.
For much of the movie, Balram lives in a dingy parking garage beneath his employer's luxury Bangalore apartment. Still, he sees himself as a man on the rise. His ebullient optimism and adaptive skills help give the movie its drive.
White Tiger brims with social and psychological asides. Pinky tries to impose her American feminist views on a culture that has no interest in them. She and her husband are hard-partying reckless young people with money. You don't need to be a seer to know where their true loyalties lie.
About midway through, Bahrani makes a daring shift in mood when Ashok, Pinky and Balram are involved in an automobile accident.
Suddenly, a young man who only recently learned to brush his teeth is thrust into the middle of a cover-up that threatens to ruin his life.
The man who holds the purse strings -- Ashok's controlling father (Mahesh Manjrekar) -- feigns no interest in those who serve him unless he wants to use them.
More socially oriented than political, the story's arc is one in which Balram learns that loyalty can be worthless in a society in which money trumps virtue. Wealth insulates the rich from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior.
Author Aravind Adiga's novel gives Bahrani an opportunity to make a character-driven movie that seduces us with its infectious energies while painting an alarming portrait of a society composed entirely of those who have a lot and those who have nothing.
Gourav gives an engaging performance, deeply embodying the conflict of a servant who understands that servility is the key to his success. At the same time, that servility keeps him from gaining a foothold in the life that hovers so alluringly above him -- at least until he learns the harsh lessons the system teaches.
Bahrani wraps satire, humor and drama around a story in which Balram reaches a deeply pragmatic if morally dubious conclusion: Better to be fed than to be fed upon.