It took a while to get Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, to the screen; the book was not great, but caught India at a cusp of the telecommunications and BPO boom, as seen through the point of view of an underprivileged man.
Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, it is the story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav– a marvellous career-building performance), who understands early in life that opportunities are not available to the poor, they have to be snatched. As a child growing up in a Bihar village, he is forced by his domineering grandmother to give up a scholarship offer and work in a tea shop to earn money for the family. He observes the hold the upper caste landlords have on the lower caste toiling families, how his father dies driving a cycle rickshaw, how his older brother is forced into a marriage and trapped at home, and he knows he has to get away.
Till then, his ambition is only to be a better class of ‘servant’ – a driver for the landlord he calls ‘Stork’ (Mahesh Manjrekar) and his sons. The older son ‘Mongoose’ (Vijay Maurya) is crude and cruel, never addressing the staff without using profanity; the younger Ashok (Rajukummar Rao) has returned from the US with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), with the accent and a slightly more polite attitude towards the staff.
For the Western viewer, unaware of the complexities of caste and class in India, The White Tiger is simply about Balram using any means possible to get what he believes is his due; but the Indian viewer will be discomfited by how the working class is treated by their employers—overworked, underpaid, abused. Balram–in a voiceover meant to explain and underline things—compares the life of the poor with chickens packed in a coop, that watch one of them being butchered, but make no attempt to escape.
Balram connives to move with Ashok and Pinky to Gurugram, where they are to bribe government officials and politicians to ease their way in business. They live in a swanky apartment, while Balram lives in a dank basement with other drivers. Even as he is suitably servile to his masters, he knows he is better than the other of his ilk—he chooses to live apart from them, and does not mingle much. He looks down his nose at the vitiligo-affected leader of the servant pack, and later throws a fit when a beggar accosts him, because he has started to identify with the life Ashok leads.
He is slammed down to earth, when a drunk Pinky runs over a child, and the Stork-Mongoose duo force Balram to sign a confession saying he was responsible. He realizes their sudden affability was a sham, and he has to find a way to break away before they replace him. His method is brutal, but for him the end justifies the means. He becomes a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore—the book and the film have the bizarre device of Balram writing his story in an email to the then Chinese Premier.
The film uses dark humour for Balram’s voiceover, both the rich and the poor are portrayed as ridiculous, but the fact is that the former have choices laid out for them. Had Balram stayed devoted and loyal to his employers, he would have remained a servant, maybe getting bigger scraps of largesse like hand-me-down clothes or leftover food. Is the servant lazy or dishonest, because he is treated badly by the employer, or does the employer treat him badly because he is lazy or dishonest—the servant-master roles exist within an unbreakable vicious circle, which is what the story, with all its flaws, is able to capture. (The condition of female domestic workers is not touched upon here, this is a male-dominated world.)
When Balram decides to be self-centred – he knows his actions will have terrible repercussions on his family back in the village – he is able to escape the “darkness”, or the blood-soaked apathy of the chicken coop.
The White Tiger has been compared to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite— it is more realistic that the first and not as brilliantly caustic as the second. The film is engaging, with a boisterous hip-hop soundtrack—a rags-to-riches story that should feel good but doesn’t. Upper and middle class India must be terrified of the underclass worm turning, while in the larger scheme of things, Balram’s belief in the “brown and yellow” taking over the world from the “white” is not too distant a possibility.