By JAKE COYLE
AP Film Writer
Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian-American filmmaker, started out small, with the simple story of a pushcart vendor, a Pakistani immigrant selling coffee and doughnuts in New York, in 2005's "Man Push Cart." In the years since, his films have steadily grown in scale and melodrama, but they've stayed resolutely within the gap separating rich and poor.
Bahrani's last film, 2014's "99 Homes" — a movie dedicated to Roger Ebert, who championed Bahrani's early work — plunged into the heart of the Great Recession in a damning economic parable of foreclosure in Florida, with a titanic performance by Michael Shannon as a predatory real-estate broker. Bahrani's latest, the India-set "The White Tiger," is a step higher, still, in scope and vigor.
"The White Tiger," which debuts Friday on Netflix, is the kind of widescreen epic of class struggle about an ambitious, cunning climber that has long been a rich domain of movies. Bahrani may have begun as a neorealist but "The White Tiger" finds him reaching for the operatic heights of "Goodfellas."
He doesn't get there. But "The White Tiger," about a loyal chauffer to a corrupt landlord in India, is an engrossing tale of servant and master that makes a dynamic portrait of the world's largest democracy, and the caste system that divides it.
The film faithfully and affectionately adapts Aravind Adiga's 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel, a book that — since Bahrani and Adiga are longtime friends — was dedicated to Bahrani. We first meet Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), as he sits in regal costume, in the back of a car speeding through Delhi in 2007 on a joyride cut short when a child walks into the road. It's a misleading opening; Balram is the driver, and we'll later learn it's his boss, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), behind the wheel and Ashok's wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) in the front seat.
Bahrani will return to this moment but not before a lengthy flashback that runs at least half of the film. Balram comes from the poor village of Laxmangarh, where his prospects are dim. With an ingratiating smile and some pandering, he convinces a wealthy landlord known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) to take him on as a driver. Balram narrates along the way, sharing his strategy for advancement while selling his story as reflecting a much-needed rebellion for India's millions of poor. They are psychologically locked in a rooster coop, he says, too timid to rebel despite knowing their fate.
"Don't believe for a second there's a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it," says Balram.
It's a pointed jab at the best picture-winning "Slumdog Millionaire," a movie that — like "The White Tiger" — cast a bright spotlight on India's underclass, but one that offered a more fantastical vision of escape. "The White Tiger," it could be argued, isn't so different as an against-the-odds success story. If "Slumdog" gave us the musical version of uprising in India, "The White Tiger" instead filters modern India through a crime drama like "Scarface."
But "The White Tiger" more rigorously examines and subverts Hollywood (and Bollywood) stereotypes of Indian life. Balram, a self-made hero, capable of ruthlessness and selfishness, is a more complicated protagonist, worthy of empathy and scorn. In "The White Tiger," he represents India's future.
"The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time," he says.
Watching Gourav pull off such a balancing act is the best reason to see "The White Tiger." An actor and singer, Gourav's charisma animates a film that otherwise can sag with heavy-handedness. Bahrani isn't a director with a light touch, but, then again, he's drawn to subjects that deserve bluntness.
Bahrani, with Paolo Carnera's vivid cinematography, builds a dense, incisive film that nevertheless feels uneven in structure. The movie is so invested in the mentality of the slave-master relationship between Balram and Ashok, the landlord's hipster son, that it overwhelms. Almost as soon as Balram, through bloodshed and Machiavellian guile, achieves independence, "The White Tiger" is wrapping up. Maybe it's too American a thing to say, but it skips over the best part.
"The White Tiger," a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language, violence and sexual material. Running time: 125 minutes. Three stars out of four.