Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani (the excellent 99 HOMES, 2014) adapted Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, and for his efforts, he was awarded an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay. The honor is justified thanks to the complexity of the story, though we are never sure if this is satire of, or insight and enlightenment into India’s caste system. Either way, it hooks us early and never lets go.
Adarsh Gourav stars as Balram, and the story is structured via his narration of his own life story as outlined in a letter he drafts to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao prior to his official visit to India in 2010. The timeline stretches from Balram’s youth to the time of the letter, when he describes himself as a Bangalore entrepreneur who rose from poverty to being a self-made man. We are there when Balram overhears the local powerbroker known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) mention that the family needs a second driver. The ambitious Balram borrows money from Granny (Kamlesh Gill) for driving lessons, and soon he’s at the gate talking his way into the job.
Balram is hired as the driver for The Stork’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has returned from his time in the U.S. with an American woman, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) by his side. It’s bizarre to see Balram’s eager-to-please ways contrast with the western approach Ashok and Pinky apply. Whereas servants are usually treated poorly, mixed messages are received by Balram, who ends up sleeping in a parking garage storage room while his masters luxuriate in a Delhi penthouse.
A tragic event occurs leaving Balram betrayed by the family to which he’s displayed nothing but loyalty. The film even takes a wicked shot at the Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), although the films do share some common themes. This film follows the plight of a servant, and takes a particularly close look at the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Just how far can one be pushed before standing up or fighting back. Since the film starts where the story ends, we are prepared for the path, though the actual steps are stunning.
Filmmaker Bahrani floats dark comedic undertones, though it’s never really funny – in fact, most of the story is quite serious. Mr. Gourav excels in the lead role as he explains India’s social structure through big belly vs small belly. His journey takes him through multiple personality shifts – the poor villager busting rocks, the eager to impress new servant, the insightful young man who learns a harsh lesson, and finally, the “self-made” man, confident in his abilities and able to overlook his own actions that got him there.
available on Netflix