‘The White Tiger’ Is a Searing Indictment of Power, Let Down by Tired Stereotypes
In 2015, Indian actor Salman Khan was convicted for killing a homeless man in a hit-and-run crash in Mumbai, 13 years after the accident took place. But justice can be extremely malleable for those on the right side of power. Just months later, Khan was acquitted by a higher court on the grounds of “not wholly reliable” testimonies. During the decade-long trial, his defence lawyers tried to pin the blame on the actor’s driver despite several eyewitness accounts to the contrary.
Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2008 debut novel, starts with an eerily similar accident that serves as the film’s macabre plot twist and sets its protagonist, the driver-and-servant Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), on a radically different path. For once, Balram is not in the driver’s seat but a passenger when Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the wife of his US-educated employer Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), takes the wheel in a drunken joyride and hits a child in a poorer part of the city. The fallout from the incident transforms Balram from the submissive servant to a self-made entrepreneur.
The film’s backdrop is India of the 2000s: a growing outsourcing hub with Bangalore as its nerve centre, and a society divided between a consumerist urban elite and a marginalised rural poor, exacerbated by more than a decade of neoliberal policies. Bahrani borrows the novel’s framing device of a series of letters that Balram writes, on the pretext of inviting investments, to the visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. These letters recount the story of the ingratiating, megalomaniac, boss-killer protagonist and his journey from a teashop waiter to a tech entrepreneur. “I offer to tell you free of charge the truth about India by telling you the story of my life,” Balram writes, setting in motion a narrative that gallops between Laxmangarh, Dhanbad, Delhi, and Bangalore.
Born in the “India of Darkness”, his family’s catastrophic poverty forces the young Balram (Harshit Mahawar) to drop out of school. Over time, he becomes warily aware of the wealthy landlord family that presides over the wretchedness of his entire village, collecting illegal rents from poor villagers while making millions exporting coal to China and offering bags of cash as bribes to the country’s political elite. The family is headed by the feudal patriarch, nicknamed the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), and his boorish elder son, the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), who stand in contrast to the seemingly more liberal younger son Ashok and his wife Pinky. Determined to avoid the dead-end fates of his father (Satish Kumar) and brother (Sanket Shanware), the ambitious Balram grovels strategically to this overlord family to make his way into “the India of Light” as personal driver to Ashok and Pinky, arriving with them to the national capital of Delhi.
What follows is a searing tale of power — those who have it and cling to it at all costs, and those who don’t and spend their lives grasping at vestiges of it.
The film (and the novel) explains this lopsided power struggle rooted in caste and class by delving into the psychology of servitude through the metaphor of a rooster coop (“They can see and smell the blood; they know they are next, and yet they don’t rebel.”). What Balram calls “the contented smile that comes to the lips of a servant who has done his duty by his master” is not about contentment at all. It is a reflex of servitude (“bred into me, poured into my blood, hammered into my soul”). It is also a necessary act of survival — a vacant grin held in place while the servant decides if he loathes his master and how he himself might one day become the master.
In its layered exploration of power and architectural allegories, the film will remind viewers of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite (2019). In Delhi, Balram lives in the dank, underground basement of one the city’s several luxury highrises while his employers occupy the airy, plush penthouse. Like the Park family in Parasite, Ashok and Pinky pride themselves in being kind to their servants, but only when it suits them, quickly reverting to a feudal opportunism when in a tight spot. Their liberal-mindedness is patronising and tinged with a privileged entitlement they remain completely oblivious to. “I wish I had a simple life like you, Balram,” Ashok says in a tone-deaf moment of alcohol-fuelled self-pity.
Adiga’s novel is an ideal playing ground for Bahrani — the two were classmates at Columbia — whose films cast an empathetic look at those left behind by conventional ideas of ‘progress’. His previous body of work includes Man Push Cart (2005) in which a former Pakistani rock star sells bagels and coffee out of a heavy cart he drags around Manhattan, Chop Shop (2007) where a 12-year-old orphan tries to find enough work in Queens to support himself and his sister, and 99 Homes (2014) in which a desperate construction worker is forced to accept a job with the same people who evicted him and his family from their home.
Bahrani brings the same empathy to his first directorial venture outside the American milieu. But there are moments where the film falters. The framing device of a letter may have worked for the novel but is unwieldy when reproduced, almost verbatim, as a voice-over. It leaves the narrative disjointed with an episodic feel. The film’s weakest links, however, are embedded in the book itself. Adiga — a middle-class, Chennai-born writer who attended Columbia and Oxford before working for Time magazine — is writing about a lived experience considerably removed from his own and often resorts to unambiguous binaries (“I am in the Light now, but I was born and raised in Darkness”, “These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies”), well-worn stereotypes (elections determined by a single man stamping ballots), and caricaturish characters (corrupt politicians, ruthless elite). It starts off as an indictment of India’s endemic inequity and corruption told through humour and satire but finally settles for a narrative of individual entrepreneurial triumph — the titular White Tiger referencing that rare individual who can pull themselves up by the bootstraps no matter their background. By staying steadfastly faithful to the source material, Bahrani repeats these reductive accounts. The ending is almost glib, veering into the excesses of the gangster genre.
That said, the film shines in its smaller moments: the vulnerability of Balram’s rival driver who must hide his Muslim faith to keep a low-paid job; Balram retreating into the gilded elevator in Ashok’s apartment building to pinch his hand to keep from crying or channeling his own desperation by losing his mind at a beggar woman on the streets. Adarsh Gourav as Balram carries the film on his shoulders, perfectly balancing notes of ambition and cunning beneath the scraping and ingratiating smiles of the servant and convincingly pulling off the roguish vibes of the self-made entrepreneur. If only for this performance, Bahrani’s film is eminently watchable.
A version of this review was published in Stylist Magazine.
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