The White Tiger, the 2008 Man Booker Prize–winning debut novel by Indian Australian author Aravind Adiga, is a gripping tale of poverty and crime in modern-day India, following a poor Indian worker’s ascent from destitute villager to chauffeur to successful small-time entrepreneur. The book examines how lower-class people cope with or try to escape from the poverty, casteism, income inequality, corruption, globalization, and other systems that entrap them—the “chicken coop,” as the protagonist calls it.
Adiga dedicated The White Tiger to his close friend Ramin Bahrani, whom he met while attending Columbia University. Bahrani wrote and directed the film adaptation, which was released in theaters earlier this month and is now available to stream on Netflix. Fans of the book will likely be pleased to see that the movie hews rather closely to its source material, but it does make a few adjustments to the story (which some critics claim is the film’s weakness). We break down the similarities and differences between the two below.
The Frame Story
The novel is formatted as eight lengthy emails written over the course of a week by the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to then–Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The catalyzing event is an All India Radio announcement of Wen’s upcoming trip to the Indian city of Bangalore—essentially the subcontinent’s Silicon Valley—to meet with local entrepreneurs. Balram, the founder and CEO of White Tiger Technology Drivers, is excited at the prospect and expresses the desire to meet with Wen and tell him his rags-to-riches story.
The movie uses these emails as narration throughout, although it does not split that narration up into eight parts like the book does. Whereas the book does not date its events, the film opens in Delhi 2007, showing a teaser of a pivotal plot point before flashing forward to the modern day, where Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is a comfortable businessman. The movie also makes Wen’s visit a much less ambiguous event, showing TV news hits of Wen in India and meeting with then–Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Unlike in the book, the near end of the movie shows Balram waiting outside a building in order to meet the premier (played by Aaron Wan) and shake his hand, though Wen barely acknowledges him. The book never mentions whether Wen and Balram ever actually meet.
Much of the genesis of Balram’s story remains the same. In both novel and film, young Balram (played by Harshit Mahawar) hails from a remote village in the state of Bihar called Laxmangarh (a different town from the one of the same name in Rajasthan) and from a big family of a lower caste most often recognized as consisting of “sweet-makers.” Balram’s family members include his grandma, Kusum (Kamlesh Gill), who serves as matriarch, since Balram’s mother is dead; his father, a rickshaw puller named Vikram (Satish Kumar); and his brother, a tea shop worker named Kishan (played as a child by Sandeep Singh and later by Sanket Shanware).
In the book, Balram’s parents didn’t even bother to name him at first, so his name became Munna, meaning “boy,” until a teacher gave him the name Balram. That detail is omitted from the movie. Balram is a precocious child who reads voraciously and excels at school, impressing even the education inspector (Mahesh Pillai), who compares Balram to the rarest of animals that only comes along once in a generation, i.e., the white tiger. Throughout the book, other characters also refer to him as such; in the film, the person who calls Balram “the white tiger” the most is Balram himself.
Yet Balram is forbidden from pursuing higher education because of his father’s debts to Laxmangarh’s cruel landlords, overseen by a man known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). Balram is forced to go work at the same tea shop as his brother in the village of Dhanbad, taking the duty of breaking coals for energy and heat. In the book, however, Balram is forced to drop out of college because his family needs money to pay off the dowry for the marriage of one of his “cousin-sisters,” though the financial pressure from the landlords also looms heavy.
In the book, Balram sets out to become a professional driver after learning how much money personal chauffeurs for India’s plutocrats make, getting Kusum to invest in driving classes. After his lessons, Balram goes around to various houses and begs for a driving job until he just happens to stumble upon the residence of the Stork. Coincidentally, the Stork’s youngest son, Ashok, happens to have just returned to India from the U.S. and needs a driver. In the movie, Balram only pursues driving lessons after hearing about the return of Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) to India, and deliberately seeks out the landlord’s residence.
Balram goes on a drive with the Stork, Ashok, and the other son in the family, Mukesh, nicknamed the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). In the book, this is the first occasion where Balram actually meets the Mongoose, but in the movie, the Mongoose comes along with the Stork for village visits. The other village landlords, also nicknamed after animals, make brief appearances in the book but don’t all make it into the movie, besides one man known as “the Buffalo.”
After Balram is hired, he gets a covered room in the Stork’s house, shared with the family’s other driver, Ram Persad (Ram Naresh Diwakar). Ram Persad has a higher status than Balram as the “No. 1 driver,” meaning he gets to drive the family’s nicest car, a Mitsubishi Pajero (in the book, a Honda City), while Balram is not allowed to even touch Ram’s car. Balram drives a lesser Mitsubishi (in the book, a Maruti Suzuki in bad shape) and also has to take on other menial chores around the house, such as cleaning, making tea, and giving foot massages to the Stork.
The Stork is soon visited by the area’s ruling minister, known only as the Great Socialist (Swaroop Sampat)—a woman in the movie but a man in the novel. The Great Socialist is one of the many politicians in the Stork family’s pocket, but she now demands they pay their fair share of taxes instead of depending on the goodwill they buy using bribes. After she leaves, the family talks about paying off the opposition party and driving the Great Socialist out of office. Ashok, the Mongoose, and Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), then decide to go to the Indian capital, Delhi, for three months in order to meet with other politicians—and hopefully pay their way out of the Stork’s new tax demands.
The Delhi Trip
In the movie, Balram spies on Ram’s solo ventures outside the house almost immediately and discovers Ram is secretly Muslim—secretly, because the Stork and his family are open Islamophobes. He later uses this to his advantage when he hears Ram has been assigned to drive Ashok and Pinky to Delhi, by threatening to reveal Ram’s secret unless he leaves the Stork’s house for good. In the book, however, Balram doesn’t spy on Ram until the Delhi trip is announced and Balram needs extra leverage over him.
Balram drives the three to Delhi, where they stay in a luxurious apartment while he stays in the dingy servants’ quarters in the basement along with other drivers who constantly razz him. The quarters depicted in the movie are much more opulent than those in the book, with the film version featuring a den of pleasures while the book version is mainly a den of roaches. (In the film, Balram eventually does move to an even more decrepit, roach-infested dorm room within the quarters.)
Much of how the Delhi expedition goes otherwise matches the book: Balram’s main job is to drive Ashok and the Mongoose around to various governmental officials, even making a stop at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Indian president’s official residence. The Mongoose eventually leaves, and Balram keeps driving Ashok and Pinky as they eventually start to argue more and more: about the true purpose of the trip, about Balram’s manners (she is horrified when she catches him scratching his groin at one point), about their marriage and families, about living in India versus living in the U.S.
Where the movie really deviates is in developing Ashok and Balram’s relationship: Unlike the book, the movie has them becoming something close to buddies, as Ashok tells Balram not to call him “sir” or “master,” and they are seen playing video games together and jamming to “Feel Good Inc.” in the car. In this way, the film more heavily highlights the homoerotic tones between the two that underlie the story (in both book and film, current-day Balram sometimes refers to Ashok as his “ex”).
A horrifying turning point takes place on Pinky’s birthday. Balram drives them to a restaurant to celebrate; after dinner, a drunken Pinky then demands to drive the car, which leads to her striking and killing a small child. (The movie makes the child’s death explicit, but in the book, it’s never actually established whether a child was killed, though a piece of green cloth found stuck in the car’s exterior implies that is the case.)
The immediate consequences are similar in both the book and movie: The Stork and Mongoose come to Delhi and coerce Balram into signing a confession—which will not be needed once the family confirms the police didn’t receive any report of the accident.
After all this, in both novel and film, Pinky walks out on Ashok and has Balram drive her to the airport. Ashok becomes extremely upset, falling into an alcoholic stupor, while Balram takes care of him. The overall nature of their post-Pinky relationship develops differently on page and screen: In the movie, Balram takes Ashok to a nice restaurant and lies to him, claiming that Pinky cried when he drove her to the airport and said Ashok would do great things. In the book, Balram and Ashok don’t really have this warm relationship; even though Balram wants to be like a “wife” to Ashok, he’s mostly just cleaning up after his emotional drinking binges.
Once the Mongoose comes back to take care of business, any hope of a closer relationship between Balram and Ashok dissipates, and the former starts thinking more seriously about his exit plan. Pinky gave him some money before she left—in the book, 4,700 rupees, in the movie, 9,300, both amounts that Balram finds suspicious. He starts driving Ashok around to ministers’ houses again and notices both that Ashok carries a red bag with him everywhere and that he’s getting more involved in upcoming elections.
In the movie, Balram learns the Mongoose and Ashok are planning to pay off government ministers and that the Mongoose seems to want Ashok to hire a new driver to replace Balram. In the novel, the Mongoose importunes Ashok to remarry; it is actually Ms. Uma, a former lover whom Ashok reconnects with after his separation from Pinky, who appears to suggest that Balram be replaced. (Ms. Uma is nowhere in the movie.)
As Balram grows more paranoid, he starts to have hallucinations: His dad tells him to take his master’s money, and he sees himself telling Ashok he wants to bash his skull in (neither vision appears in the book). When he does try to talk to Ashok, however, Ashok assumes that Balram wants to go see his family and gives him just enough money for a one-way ticket. In the book, Ashok actually assumes Balram wants to get married, takes out a lump of cash, and deliberately only gives a part of it to Balram, which the driver later throws away.
Meanwhile, the Great Socialist wins her election, and Balram and Ashok drive to a celebratory rally. Ashok worries about his own prospects but greets the Great Socialist warmly as she enters the car. He offers her 1 million rupees, but her aide says he knows Ashok paid the opposition party and demands four times that amount from him, making clear the family’s financial entanglements aren’t over. This part, again, plays out differently in the book: After the Great Socialist’s victory, Ashok goes to the Imperial Hotel to meet two men, both of whom take Balram’s car while Ashok takes a taxi. The men talk about shaking Ashok down for extra money and possibly roughing him up if he doesn’t pay up.
In both book and movie, Balram later comes across a boy named Dharam, who claims he’s an extended family member and bears a letter from Kusum. The correspondence is a threat: Kusum complains that Balram has not sent money for months, that he needs to get married to the woman they’ve picked out for him, and that she’ll tell the landlords about Balram’s nonpayments if he doesn’t comply.
Balram decides to murder Ashok, steal the money, and begin a new life. This crime forms The White Tiger’s climax, though the timeline differs in the adaptation from the original story. In the film, Balram drives through a rainstorm to pick up Ashok, who says Pinky called and asked him to move to New York, though he doesn’t want to. Balram pulls over the car, stating that something is wrong with the wheel. He takes a broken glass bottle he stored in the front of the car with him as he “inspects” the wheel, soon telling Ashok that he needs his help to fix it. Ashok gets out, crouches down against the wheel, and remarks that it seems fine; Balram says he should have “found a replacement a long time ago,” then stabs his master and slits his throat. He drives away screaming and laughing maniacally before fetching Dharam and taking him down to Bangalore. (Interestingly, the movie doesn’t explore Balram and Dharam’s relationship as deeply as the book does, which may make Balram’s decision to take Dharam along confusing for viewers.)
In the book, Balram drives Ashok and his red bag to several banks, from which the businessman takes multiple ample stacks of bills. Balram tells the lie about the wheel and guilts Ashok out of the car by mentioning that the wheel hasn’t been right since a drive they made to a hotel where Ashok had hired a prostitute. After Ashok looks at the wheel, Balram stabs him, hesitating slightly before finishing the murder. Knowing that the landlords will inevitably massacre his family after what he did, he considers this killing “revenge in advance.”
Back to Business
The endings of both the movie and film are more or less the same: Balram and Dharam make it to Bangalore, where they hide for a few weeks before resurfacing and exploring the city. Balram decides to get into the outsourcing business after noticing how many cars are needed to take workers to call centers and deciding he can provide that transportation service. Balram uses the money from Ashok’s red bag to bribe local police into cracking down on taxi services that already contract with the call centers, opening up the market for himself and his new venture, White Tiger Technology Drivers. In a sinister signoff worthy of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Balram, now an accomplished executive, reveals his new, assumed name: Ashok Sharma.