In an interview, American-Iranian director Ramin Bahrani remarked that he could not comment on the future of India, which is too complex a country for an outsider to prophesise about. Yet with flair and conviction he bares the complexity of the glaring social inequality, the two Indias that exist simultaneously – often side by side in our beloved country.
Of course, at the heart of White Tiger is the skewed master-servant matrix, which we are all too familiar with. And are keenly aware too of how the paradigm invariably works to the disadvantage of the less privileged. Social inequity has been an oft-explored subject in cinema. It has been brought to fore in the seventies by master storytellers like Shyam Benegal most tellingly in films like Ankur. More recently Oscar-winning Parasite dealt with the social disparity in no uncertain terms too.
Only The White Tiger, based on Man Booker prize winner Aravind Adiga’s book, is as much about the oppressed as them turning a new leaf. The year in which he wrote the book is 2008, one of globalised world and growing aspirations. So how can those at the bottom rung of the ladder not be touched by the swirl of change around them?
The White Tiger, the analogy between the rare animal and rarity among mankind, Balram Halwai (too sharp and shrewd for his class) is obvious. Yet this is no fairy-tale rise of the underdog.
Never mind the first scene showing him as a successful entrepreneur will belie you into believing so. But then as Balram says, “The only way poor can go up in life is through crime and politics.” Which one he will choose is obvious as the film progresses.
To cut a long story short, Balram is a bright rural lad of Bihar who escapes the poverty trap, the coop as he dubs it. For a start he becomes a driver to an Indian couple Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) that has just returned from America. Clearly the scene in which Ashok offers his hand to Balram by way of greeting shows Ashok nurses a different value system, in sharp contrast to his despotic father-brother duo. But does he really? Aren’t the rich always the same deep down, whatever may be the guise? Can the master-servant relationship beyond the surface level bonhomie ever be anything but exploitative?
Of course, we see the narrative, even Balram’s own mean streak strictly from his perspective. But this is no sob story of a man being at a perpetual receiving end. Dark yes, sure it has pathos, some surreal moments, and humour, “America is so yesterday,” punctuates it all too often. What it doesn’t have is overt sentimentality. Even when the relationship between the driver and his master couple goes on an even keel, the difference between the classes is too stark for comfort.
Besides isn’t servitude ingrained within the DNA of the poor? But something else is simmering within the sorry sir/madam Balram offers all too profusely by way of apology.
Sourced in a book, expectedly one-liners convey a lot. “Do we hate our masters behind the façade of love or love them behind…” But the best one comes close to the narrative. In that one line you see Balram, now Ashok in entirety. If the new name he has acquired is not perchance, but a pithy comment on the new juxtaposition, so is the line, “Anything not to be a servant even for one minute.” In one flash, it encapsulates the psyche of what it means to be on the ugly side of India where democracy is meaningless to masses struggling to eke out a living. The film shot remarkably well by Paolo Carnera without a doubt is more than meaningful with some clever ploys and props at play.
A red bag connotes corruption and greed. Yes by throwing in a corrupt socialist-politician the director tries to look at the overall socio-political picture. But the strength of the drama lies in staying with its key character Balram, whom you like/dislike. Both his predicament and ambiguity are pulled off by new entrant Adarsh Gourav, with all the varying inflections that the character deserves. Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra fill in their parts, as do others like Mahesh Manjerkar and Vijay Maurya.
If you live in India and if you haven’t read the book, which perhaps fleshes it out better, the one thing that jars is the trigger behind Balram’s sudden rage and his murderous act. But then The White Tiger is neither judging nor condemning its characters. Merely looking at the chasm which we all know exist. Only it brings out a sharp portrait of the class divide and ambition to transcend whatever it takes.