Written by: Anusha
Edited by: Keitaro
Visual by: Allison
Arvind Adiga’s book, The White Tiger, made quite the splash upon its release in 2008. Not only did the book win the Man Booker award that year, but the portrayal of the friction between the economic classes in a newly globalized India, struck a chord globally. So expectations for White Tiger were high when Netflix announced the movie adaptation. The film was released mid January and rapidly claimed the spot of “top worldwide film” on Netflix. It follows the protagonist, Balram, on his journey from the ‘servant’ class in an impoverished village, to a business entrepreneur in a big city. However, this tale is not the average heartwarming, rags-to-riches story.
The movie is narrated as a series of emails from the protagonist to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo, recounting Balram’s life story and highlighting the choices he made. Using his wits and a few lies, Balram manages to pull himself out of his poverty stricken childhood home in rural Laxmangarh by landing a sought after job of becoming a driver for a wealthy family. His duty is to ferry around the younger son who has recently returned from the USA with an Indian American wife in tow. It is clear from the beginning that this couple doesn’t align with the traditional business family, the young couple have liberal values and are kind to Balram, unlike the older members of the family who treat him horribly. Yet, over time, the layers of condescension and disdain form the deep divide between Balram and the couple.
Balram’s life takes a sharp turn when the young couple are involved in a drunk driving incident that kills a young child and the family elders bully Balram into taking the blame for the accident. As viewers, we see how easily the liberal values of the modern couple disappear and how easily they are convinced by the family that it is only right for Balram to take the blame. And Balram himself, conditioned by generations of caste oppression, does not question the decision, though he is visibly impacted by the prospect of jail. This incident becomes a catalyst that opens Balaram’s eyes to the hypocrisy, privilege, and inhumanity around him, leading him onto a path that requires him to fight his way out of poverty by doing whatever it takes to get rich.
As movie reviewer Sucharita Tyagi says, “Modern India’s chasm between the haves and the have nots is so wide that there is no institutional way to bridge it.” Balram’s journey illustrates the depths a person has to go in order to break the cycle of poverty. The government has not done enough to help bridge the inequality gap. The demonetization and the farm acts are examples of decisions that Modi has taken that favor the upper class. The movie particularly highlights one of Balram’s struggles, the issue of modern casteism in India. Balram is constantly referred to as a Halwai (a sweetmaker), a term commonly associated with a lower caste. Balram believes that if he gains money and power, he will be able to overcome caste bias however this is an issue that a lot of critics have commented on; just because a person is able to overcome poverty, does not mean they won’t be subjected to casteism. While Indian society has made much improvement in its treatment of lower castes, the movie comes at a time where casteist politics has begun to rise, once again. Critics such as journalist, Sagar, states, “the BJP leadership viewed caste from an upper–caste lens, through which they could deny the existence of it altogether, and yet reap the benefits from it.” Without the government addressing casteism, the unfair treatment of lower castes will stay, hidden away and Dalits will never be treated justly. There is a severe issue of privilege and it’s movies like this that allow the audience to become aware of just how badly the lower class are treated.
There is something to be said about how The White Tiger dehumanizes the lower income class. Balram attributes animal qualities throughout the movie, most notably seen in the rooster metaphor. Roosters in a coop watch as they see the roosters around them get slaughtered; they do nothing to try to escape the coop. Balram states, “The greatest thing to come out of this country… is the Rooster Coop. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers…They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.” These images are extreme and could be considered offensive to the poor. Balram’s decisions are extreme, he kills a person with no remorse, and this is not representative of the entire lower class.
This movie also feels particularly timely in the age of COVID-19, when problems of inequality are at the forefront of our minds. Not only do the effects of COVID impact the poor greatly, but there will also be huge differences in access to the vaccinations, depending on the development of the country you live in. Watching The White Tiger allows us to experience the rage, the frustration, and the rationale of why people with no other options turn to violence.
Desai, Sneha Menon. The White Tiger | Not A Movie Review by Sucharita Tyagi. Performance by Sucharita Tyagi, Youtube, Film Companion, 22 Jan. 2021, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRX9JCAyYWA.
Sagar, S. “Narendra Modi’s ‘Two-Caste Society’ Is a Facade to Hide the BJP’s Casteist Politics.” The Caravan, 21 June 2019, caravanmagazine.in/politics/narendra-modi-two-caste-society-casteist-bjp.
Sahu, Sushri. “’The White Tiger’ Reviews Are In And Here’s What The Critics Are Saying.” Mashable India, 6 Jan. 2021, in.mashable.com/entertainment/19386/the-white-tiger-reviews-are-in-and-heres-what-the-critics-are-saying. Thiagarajan, Kamala. “What Indians Who’ve Known Poverty Think Of Netflix’s ‘The White Tiger’ Movie.” NPR, NPR, 29 Jan. 2021, http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/01/29/961620648/what-formerly-poor-indians-think-of-netflixs-the-white-tiger-movie.