Based on the Man Booker prize-winning novel ‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga, the film shows that when one person breaks out of exploitation, another takes his place.

Adrash Gaourav in White TigerScreengrab
Flix Commentary Monday, January 25, 2021 - 17:01

Spoilers ahead

Balram Halwai comes from a poor family in Laxmangarh, begins working as a driver for the youngest son of the landlord in the city. With unmeasured but contained rage and an unsettling devotion to his ‘masters’ (his choice of word for his employers), Balram learns the ropes, climbs up the ladder, and wrests power from his masters to seemingly break out of the ‘rooster coop’ that is designed to keep those ‘like him’ to be exploited by those like the landlord and his family. But does he really break out of it? Is he the white tiger, an exception that comes once a generation, or another man who has simply clawed to a higher place in the food chain, enabling the same system?

When Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger released, it earned praise for its unabashed take on the class divide in India, and a protagonist who uses questionable, unconventional, and violent means to get the power that has historically been kept from his community. While it had its share of criticism for reduction and erasure of the caste system in India, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel made amply clear the hypocrisy of the rich to neatly segregate the right and wrong per their convenience, while earning their wealth by exploiting and bribing, and benefitting from the status quo. The poor person – represented by Balram in the novel – on the other hand, must pay, and risk punishment if he/she steals, hustles, misleads and for aspiring to have a better life.

Rahmin Bahrani’s eponymous film based on the novel, released on Netflix on January 22, stars Adrash Gaourav as Balram, the protagonist of the story. His immediate ‘masters’ are Ashok, a US-returnee (Rajkummar Rao), and his Indian-origin wife from New York, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Much like the book, the film also gives a darkly humourous, satirical narration by Balram, who transitioned from driver-cook for his ‘master’ to an entrepreneur in 2010, three years after his story begins. He makes frequent references to the ‘rooster coop’, where he says the Indian lower class is trapped like chickens.

The rooster coop is a metaphor for the exploitative capitalist system, which is enabled and maintained by the upper class, which benefits from it. Per the film, the system is also bolstered by the internalised desire 'to serve', which is bred into the ‘chickens’ – the working class – who spend generation after generation in the rooster coop. The story is then about Balram coming to terms with this system and questioning his own conditioning of believing he is meant to be ‘servant’ to his ‘masters’, and then his attempts to break out of this cycle to become an entrepreneur by whatever means he deems necessary, including murder.

It begs the question though – does Balram really break out of the rooster coop? Or does he simply climb up the ladder to become another ‘master’? Towards the end of the film, we see a vindicated Balram, who has murdered Ashok, fleeing to Bengaluru with Rs 40 lakh that was meant to bribe a politician in order to enable his family’s tax fraud. Balram even uses the name ‘Ashok Sharma’ – without any apparent guilt – to run a taxi business. Balram aka Ashok Sharma proclaims that he takes care of his drivers, and treats them as employees and not servants, thus paying forward his own breaking the cycle of his servitude. However, he too pays bribes to the police and pays off people to buy their silence, much like his rich and privileged former employers’ family. It is also hinted that as a vengeance by the deceased Ashok’s family, Balram’s family back in Laxmangarh has paid the price with their lives.

So, while Balram’s rags-to-riches story is morally grey, unconventional, and more Joker (from Batman) than Robin Hood, it also shows that the empowerment is relative to where one comes from. The capitalism system and society are such that it creates class, thereby the insatiable desire to climb up the economic ladder. 

So, while Balram sees himself as an employer, and appears to give the drivers, his employees, the rights and dignity that he was deprived of, he does say at the end, “I’ve switched sides. I’ve made it, I’ve broken out of the coop.” The ending shot is one of all the drivers he has employed standing together, looking at the camera, challenging the ‘rooster coop’. However, while Balram may be more benevolent and fairer, and has broken the shackles of the guilt he has been conditioned to feel for cheating those of the class above him, he thrives because there are those lower than him on the ladder.

Interestingly, in the film, Ashok’s family pays bribes to a woman politician who is known among the people as ‘The Socialist’. She is known as someone who came from the ‘darkness’ – a reference in the film to the penury of the lower classes – who too broke out of the rooster coop, and subverted the system to have the rich bribe and be subservient to her instead. Someone called the ‘socialist’ exploiting capitalism and the corruption it spawns is quite ironic, but also quite believable in the world we live in.

In recent times, parallels can be drawn to the critiques about feminism and women’s self-expression that question why women empowering themselves should look like them talking about sex, sexuality in language considered ‘crass’ (but more acceptable when it comes from men), and dressing ‘provocatively’. The simple fact is that the male gaze and patriarchy are so entrenched that sometimes, empowerment can also be about reclaiming the words and tropes used to objectify, demonise and reduce women, and use them on our terms, as a form of self-expression and agency.    

Admittedly, The White Tiger also suffers from the Western gaze (similar to the way BBC’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy did), especially due to its erasure of caste while speaking about class, capitalism and economic divide; and the awkward usage of English dialogues among people whose first language it is clearly not. However, it does succeed in showing Balram as the white tiger, who subverts the system meant to exploit and oppress him and his coming generations. And while he says he has broken out of it, the rooster coop very much continues. Balram must continue to rely on the same exploitative, corrupt capitalism that creates classes and makes people aspire to climb through them, to prosper.

Views expressed are author's own.

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