Protagonists make dark and disturbing choices to escape poverty or get ahead in films by Ramin Bahrani. The writer-director shifts from American terrain to economically rising India in “The White Tiger,” his satirically biting but emotionally underwhelming adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s novel about India’s caste system and master-servant mind-set streaming Friday on Netflix.
Bahrani, whose films include “Man Push Cart” and “99 Homes,” again combines social drama and an entertaining story in this rags-to-riches tale that begins with a freeze frame and then flashes forward to 2007. In an implausible but amusing framing device, protagonist Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is a young ponytailed entrepreneur composing an email to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao about Wen’s upcoming India visit.
“America is so yesterday,” Balram says. “India and China are so tomorrow.” He then shares his life story. The pre-entrepreneur Balram describes India as a land where people are either rich, and have big bellies, or poor, and have small bellies. Having grown up in an impoverished village, he seeks to become a big-bellied sort.
Refusing to be a rooster — acquiescent in the coop as doom approaches — Balram pursues employment as a driver for the wealthy landlord known as the Shark (Mahesh Manjrekar), never mind that the Shark (echoes of “99 Homes”) has treated Balram’s family and village abominably.
With some cunning, Balram becomes chief chauffeur for the Shark’s younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and Ashok’s Brooklyn-born wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). The liberal couple, who won’t let servants call them “master,” treat Balram decently and, at times, like a pal. But a shattering incident (pictured in the freeze frame) awakens Balram to the reality that he’ll always be a lowly servant in rich people’s eyes.
More “Parasite” than “Slumdog Millionaire” — Balram, in narrator mode, takes a critical jab at the Danny Boyle-directed fairy tale — the movie darkens as Balram transforms from servant into what he deems an enlightened master. To succeed requires sinister doings.
Like many book-based films, the movie reflects what appears to be an effort to do justice to its source material, with plot overload being the result. Unusual in a Bahrani film, the story often upstages the characters, who can come off as symbols of their economic class, not three-dimensional people.
Balram can be problematic. Initially sympathetic as he commits petty crimes to advance in a dog-eat-dog atmosphere, he becomes increasingly difficult to root for as his end-
justifies-means actions grow nasty. The satire works, but the humanity is wanting.
While viewers may not entirely embrace Balram’s dark side, Gourav’s charismatic, multifaceted, energetic performance makes it possible for them to stick with him for two hours. Balram, who seems to view himself as the face of modern India, is never dull.
Meanwhile, Bahrani’s book adaptation depicts India’s caste system sharply and examines master-servant dynamics with surprising psychological depth. The title refers to the rare striped animal that Balram relates to. When he encounters the tiger, he doesn’t appear to realize that it’s caged.
The White Tiger
Starring: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra, Mahesh Manjrekar
Written and directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
“Identifying Features” calls attention to the terror occurring in northern Mexico, through a quietly compelling story about a mother searching for her missing son on terrain made deadly by the drug wars.
Unlike big-studio border-wars action dramas, this feature debut of writer-director Fernanda Valadez — a road tale and thriller with horror and surrealism — features an intimate story and an unassuming heroine. She is Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), a middle-aged Mexican mother whose son, Jesus, a border-bound migrant whose face looks so young you want to cry, is missing.
Magdalena visits the police to report his disappearance, accompanied by the mother of the friend with whom Jesus was traveling, who also is missing. In a scene illustrating the brutality of the region, the cops hand the women an album of grisly corpse photos.
While Jesus’ friend is among the dead, Jesus’ fate is unknown, and, having little faith in the authorities, Magdalena sets off on a dangerous quest through a landscape containing militia destroyed homes and mass graves to seek answers.
Her journey includes several destinations, and, for a spell, Magdalena travels with, and, movingly, develops familial feelings for, Miguel (David Illescas), a young man deported from the United States who is trying to find his mother.
While at times, Valadez’s visual approaches, especially the use of blurry focus, can be distracting, the filmmaker’s skillful tone-blending storytelling and gritty and poetic imagery powerfully depict the human effects of Mexico’s unsuccessful drug wars.
Hernandez’s subtle, nuanced lead performance, meanwhile, gives the movie a quiet but commanding protagonist who represents so many mothers who have lost children to violence.
“Identifying Features” opens on Kino Marquee and in virtual cinemas on Friday.
Starring: Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas
Directed by: Fernanda Valadez
Written by: Fernanda Valadez, Astrid Rondero
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes