The White Tiger: Rich is rich and poor is poor and never the twain shall meet
Directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, the film is a breeze despite some tired cliches. It ends up as an insider’s take on corruption and caste and class-divides in India
While watching The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani’s screen adaptation of Arvind Adiga’s 2008 novel, I couldn’t help wondering if Adiga’s words might have pre-empted Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winning Parasite. The unfairness of class divides and social differences is as much a dark shade of black in both. In fact, it is bleaker in The White Tiger what with the added endemic complications of caste and religion, politics and corruption in India.
The rise of the ambitious Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) of Laxmangarh, from a tea shop worker to a driver to a successful entrepreneur, has other parallels as well with the Joon-ho film.
The Kim family creeps into the Park household quite like Balram (Adarsh Gourav) infiltrates the posh and privileged world of Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra-Jonas). Both Balram and the Kims take to subterfuge and deception and neither has any moral compunctions when it comes to eliminating an old domestic help to slide into favour themselves.
Then you have Ashok and Pinky, at times as naïve and gullible as the Park couple, and also progressive and friendly in their dealings with Balram but eventually just as disdainful of poverty and its by-products, even if subtly and sensitively so—the aversion for pan-stained teeth, the dirtiness and the distinctive stench of poverty. In both the universes, the humiliation of the poor is a given and co-existence of the two classes is momentary, a mirage at that.
And then the two films also share a similar sense of verticality when it comes to visualizing the spatial divide of the classes. The unventilated, basement cubbyholes for the drivers of the residents of the fancy condominiums in The White Tiger are no different from the sun-less bunkers hiding the ghosts of poverty in the rich villas of Parasite.
Of course, it gets more messy and complicated in The White Tiger, what with the infinitely bigger chaos that India is. There might be a forward movement towards betterment, a seeming social mobility, but it comes with huge human costs involved. Balram is able to break the shackles of servitude, is able to get out of the “rooster coop”, as he himself puts it in the film. But is he quite free? Has he emancipated himself?
Talk of India and some cliches are inescapable—the 36 million gods for instance. The yellow and brown power of China and India respectively may have been something to talk about, back then in 2007, but now just a tired description and well past its “best by” date. The long voiceover, which is anyhow always limiting and limited as a narrative device, riles with the over-explication.
In fact, some scenes feel like flat, clunky backdrops on screen for the commentary (which is actually Balram reading out his long email to the visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao) play against, while you wish you’d have rather seen than be explained things.
Call it a mental block. Though I am ok reading an Indian book in English, even if it is set in rural hinterland, I get highly resistant when I see the characters talk in English on screen, more so when I know it’s a language that they otherwise won’t be conversant in. Similarly, for the British or American accents hanging heavy on the Indian actors, sounding artificial and worked at. These elements jar a bit initially in The White Tiger but, once you get past them, the film is a breeze of a watch. Adarsh Gourav carries it on his slim shoulders rather ably as he dashes past a range of actions and emotions on screen.
My quibbles about the English and the accents aside, the big strength of The White Tiger is that Bahrani directs it like an insider. It’s not a typical Western gaze on India. He constructs it like an eminently engaging Bollywood film, without song-n-dance but with a persuasive social commentary. One which is easy to buy into and engage with, both in the East as well as the West.
(The White Tiger dropped on Netflix on January 22, 2021)