The Netflix film The White Tiger is a literary adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same name. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, the film lens finds its focus on the body and mind of Balram, played by Adarsh Gourav, the narrative being from his point of view. The script is very similar to what Adiga has written and, to a certain extent, does live up to the socio and geo-political landscape Adiga has crafted. Gourav lives Balram brilliantly and shines through his portrayal of this highly complex character. Belonging to a lower caste (Halwai) and being from a very poor background, Balram’s narrative takes self-conscious relish in breaking free from the socio-economic restrictions of his caste and class through unique personal philosophies about survival, killing his master and becoming a rich business man. I enjoyed the very unique perspective of the servant acquiring power through building trust with the rich and elite, the plot tangibly interacting with the entirety of the Indian economy, as it packs and slips itself through politician’s households, government buildings, courts, and biggest hotels of the National Capital of India. Balram interrupts and redirects a small part of that flow into his own life by killing and stealing from his rich and beloved Indian born and American educated master, Ashok, and manages to construct a pathway out of his caste and class history and reinscribe his identity into the rich and elite. He is not a messiah for the poor and oppressed, nor he is a spokesperson for their needs. He is motivated solely by his own personal desires, often discarding people from his own communities—that is a cost he is willing to bear for his ambitions to come true.
The film pushes one to critically think and dismantle the ways in which we are conditioned to look at historically marginalized groups in works of art and confronting the history of violent state apparatuses. We may end up passing judgements about such characters’ choices and deem incarceration as a solution- which a character like Balram gets to escape in this fictional world.
Portraying Pinky and Ashok, Priyanka Chopra and Rajkumar Rao play the traditional tropes of the foreign–educated, rich Indians who believe they just know better. They fill up their respective scenes with youthful energy, the passion to make political change, and their belief that their expensive degree makes them better at navigating and tackling state politics and eradicating caste and class politics. Their neo-liberal feminism looms over Balram and his marginalization to produce great satirical material for this caste-class parable. I was a little troubled by how hollowed out their characters seemed to be, perhaps intentionally, to emphasize them as embodiments of various structural privileges, contrasting starkly and unsatisfyingly against the rural India Bahrani has set up. Something Balram expounds further with every new scene sited in his village and New Delhi.
The book and the film’s narrative flow around two larger and developing metaphors through the whole story- ‘The white tiger’and the ‘rooster coop’. Balram identifies himself as the white tiger, who is born ‘once every generation’ thus is incredibly special for the whole world, in this case, to flip the status quo in his favour. The rooster coop on the other hand is a profound metaphor for the poor Indian society, with individuals being roosters who will be slaughtered by the butcher (the system) soon. The latter metaphor has stirred a lot of controversaries in the past and has been perceived as a way of pandering to the white audience, and intentionally depicting India in bad light. Let me know what did you make of these metaphors!
Image: Alice Barigelli on Flickr