The White Tiger

The White Tiger ★★★

Indian writer Aravind Adiga has always been rather gracious about the social message of “Slumdog Millionaire” — the Chennai-born author has often insisted that the British-produced Best Picture shined a spotlight on the poor of a country whose own popular cinema tends to ignore them. But his 2008 novel “The White Tiger” reads like such a damning critique of Danny Boyle’s slickly subaltern fairy tale that it almost feels like a direct rebuttal.

One is the star-crossed story of a passive kid from the Mumbai slums who gets the girl and lucks his way out of poverty after it turns out that his lifelong misfortunes were actually just preparing him to win the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” It’s shot with the percussive energy of a music video, scored by worldwide mega-star A.R. Rahman, and ends with a Bollywood dance number that leaves you with a smile on your face.

The other turns a more skeptical eye towards the impact of globalization on the lower castes, as it follows the Machiavellian son of a rickshaw driver as he claws his way from Bihar to Bangalore in search of personal freedom through capitalism or from it, whichever comes first. It’s flecked with murderous black humor, told with all the subtlety of getting run over by a car, and generally sees Indian society as a giant rooster coop where servants either kill their masters or spend their entire lives waiting in line to get their heads chopped off.

These stories trace similar trajectories, but while they both contend that freedom isn’t cheap, they crucially disagree on the nature of the cost. It’s the difference between “Cinderella” and “Goodfellas,” a difference that could only have been more pronounced if Adiga’s cunning anti-hero had followed some terrible crime by declaring out loud that no poor chaiwallah ever got rich by waiting for some game show to hand him a fortune. In Ramin Bahrani’s fast, lucid, and sometimes faithful-to-a-fault adaptation of “The White Tiger,” that’s exactly what he does.

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