‘The White Tiger’ presents a searing look at India’s caste system

“The White Tiger” is one of those movies that would likely struggle to claw out much attention without Netflix’s muscle behind it, underscoring the streaming service’s ability to lead people to worthwhile films they might not see — in this case, a sobering adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s award-winning book that dissects India’s caste system.

The action unfolds through the eyes of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), who narrates his story — beginning in 2007 — from the vantagepoint of a newly minted tycoon, writing a letter to the visiting Chinese premier requesting the opportunity to meet with him. The narrative then flashes back, revealing Balram as the “low-born” servant to an imperious and corrupt family, obediently operating as their driver.

How did he get from there to here in just three years, escaping the endemic poverty that writer-director Ramin Bahrani portrays in illuminating detail? Therein lies the mystery, filling the movie with a sense of foreboding that’s enhanced by the narration, which at one point includes a warning that things are about to get “much darker.”

Strangers to the particulars of India’s class system might be shocked by the depiction of how the lives of the poor are viewed. Balram exhibits real academic promise as a child, before an unfortunate turn of events forces him to begin working in order to provide for his family.

“I never saw the inside of a school again,” he recalls, with the same matter-of-fact tone he brings to even the most harrowing parts of his life.

The central relationship for Balram turns out to be his involvement with Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the family’s American-educated son who has returned home, and Ashok’s US-raised wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, also a producer of the film). While they come to rely on Balram, they frequently treat him horribly — almost like a non-person — a reminder of structural inequities and the way they foster abusive behavior.

It’s a remarkable central performance by Gourav, whose character shrewdly schemes in order to get hired as Ashok’s driver. Yet his efforts to convey an outward image of happy servitude are regularly challenged, while his boss (or “master,” as Balram calls him) can turn on the cruelty at a moment’s notice.

The book and film derive the title from the rarest of animals, hinting at the qualities that will be necessary to allow Balram to make the leap from prey to predator, graduating from low-born person to his current persona’s high-class problems.

The final act isn’t quite equal to the build-up, but by then, “The White Tiger” has already pretty well sunk its teeth into you, making the investment in understanding Balram’s fate feel like two hours well spent.

“The White Tiger” premieres Jan. 22 on Netflix.

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