By Tim Jackson
This is a wicked and entertaining satire on the class conflicts roiling Indian society, a neo-Marxist story of masters and servants, money and corruption — a Horatio Alger tale with a devilish twist.
The White Tiger, based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 best-selling novel, is a fitting choice for Ramin Bahrani, the director of such neorealist films as Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Good-Bye Solo. Those focus on working-class struggles, often among immigrant populations, and were shot in urban locations with mostly nonprofessional actors. This film, streaming on Netflix, was also photographed in India’s chaotic streets, impoverished villages, and wealthy estates, but here Bahrani cast seasoned Indian actors. Adiga and Bahrani (to whom the Man Booker prize-winning book is dedicated) were friends at Columbia University, and their relationship is no doubt key to how successfully the film captures the novel’s dark comic tone. The result is a wicked and entertaining satire on the class conflicts roiling Indian society, a neo-Marxist story of masters and servants, money and corruption — a Horatio Alger tale with a devilish twist.
The opening scene, set in 2007, establishes the contrasts between modern and traditional. Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) adjusts his turban in as he sits in the back seat of a car on a joy ride through Delhi. Drivers Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American wife, Pinky (Pryanka Chopra-Jonas), laugh and scream as the vehicle swerves in and out of traffic, at one point nearly colliding with a cow standing in the road. “Beware of the Boys,” a blend of Indian tabla, sitar, and hip-hop by Punjabi MC and Jay Z, blasts on the radio. Suddenly, the frame freezes. Balram’s voice-over explains: “Pardon me. This is no way to start a story. I’m Indian after all and it is an ancient and venerated custom to start a story praying to a higher power.”
A colorful (and wry) montage on the 36 million gods in Hindu culture follows. Then we see Balram sitting, lotus position, under an elegant chandelier. The voice-over continues as the camera moves up to his face: “The Indian entrepreneur has to play it straight and crooked, mocking and believing.” His eyes open wider as he looks straight at us — “sly and sincere all at the same time.” This contradiction in the Indian ethos drives what Balram calls his “glorious tale.” The plot jumps ahead to Bangalore in 2010. Sitting at a desk in a natty suit and a well-groomed handlebar mustache, Balram is penning a letter to the soon-to-be visiting Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao: “The future of the world lies in the yellow man and the brown man,” he proclaims. This epistolary voice-over accompanies the rest of The White Tiger, which flashes back to Balram’s childhood in the poverty-stricken village of Laxmargarth. There we see the boy answer some probing questions from a stern schoolmaster. Impressed by his intelligence, the teacher asks: “In the jungle, who is the rarest of animals that comes along only once in a generation?” “The white tiger,” the boy responds. “You,” declares the teacher, “are that white tiger.” Balram embraces the moniker and becomes, as in any good bildungsroman, our wily antihero. Adarsh Gourav endows the ambitious climber with the requisite cunning charm.
Disdainful of the lowly status into which he was born, Balram believes that his cleverness will free him from his rural life. He maneuvers his way into becoming a driver for a wealthy family. Grinning and obsequious, he excels at pulling off his duties: know your place, do your job well, maintain respect for your betters. He is eventually assigned as servant and driver to Ashok, the son of the man Balram calls “The Stork.” He remains submissive, despite being made to live in a dreary underground room filled with peeling paint, cobwebs, and mosquito netting that is supposed to protect him from all the bugs and roaches. On the one hand, Balram is proud of his position, his knack for anticipating his master’s every need. On the other, he is profoundly cynical about India’s legal and social systems of justice. They stand in the way of his breaking free of his low caste. He smiles at his employers, but Balram asks himself: “Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?”
Glancing in the car’s rearview mirror, Balram assesses Ashok’s temperament, dissecting his vulnerabilities. He recognizes how easily the young man is influenced by Pinky’s more modern attitudes. “Don’t call me, ‘Sir.’ I’m Ashok,” he tells Balram, all the while enjoying the benefits of entrenched privilege. The driver sees this contradiction between class privilege and liberal self-congratulation as a weakness; he secretly refers to Ashok as “The Lamb.” Artfully playing the perfect servant, Balram slowly gains the couple’s trust, keeping up a superficial friendship, to the point of acting as their occasional advisor. Ashok’s half-hearted ambition to be enlightened is at odds with the prerogatives of wealth he takes for granted. His stubborn father has little tolerance for behavior that steps outside the formalities of caste. Pinky is proud of her humble childhood in Queens; she is upset by the way Balram is treated merely because of his low caste. But her words, as they say, butter no parsnips. Meanwhile, Balram begins to feel that he has become an equal. His hubris is condemned by his family, who accuse him of becoming puffed-up. He thinks they are complacently wallowed in their poverty. The initially comic collision of these perspectives becomes considerably darker when they crash into the violent reality of the Indian class system.
We are repeatedly reassured by The White Tiger‘s characters that India is a great democratic success story. That is a self-admiring lie, of course. Caste in India is fixed and its restrictions are mostly taken for granted. The role of ever-grinning servant is part of an ancient game, a pantomime played by “minority” cultures around the world, including in America. Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents provides ample evidence that our racism is part of a long history: the intentional creation by the rich and powerful of a servant underclass. The White Tiger‘s dissection of liberal hypocrisy — exploit others while exempting yourselves from doing anything about the injustice — sends a powerful message to the supporters of a growing gig economy. Institutional racism is unsustainable, inequality is dangerous, and civilized society will not endure without significant change.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.