The Souls Of Brown Folk: Reviewing Netflix’s ‘The White Tiger’
by Koom Kankesan
Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger adapts Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize winning novel. The novel itself, published as a first work of fiction by the thirty-four year old Adiga, was not in the vein or style of other notable Booker winners. For one thing, its style did not have the literary polish of Booker notables writing postcolonial lit: your Ondaatjes and Rushdies and Coetzees and so on. Furthermore, its stinging and bitter satire about Indian mores and the power structure that keeps so many of India’s citizens in lives of abject poverty seemed to spit in the eye of the more luxuriant work the Booker prize celebrates. Last but not least, Adiga was obviously a young writer and the book’s voice was a young voice resounding a lack of both temperament and experience. These are all interesting things.
Bahrani on the other hand is a filmmaker who has notched some marks with his indie films (though he hasn’t cracked the big time like Adiga has) and has been interested in the material contained in Adiga’s book since before its publication. The film is a completely competent adaptation of the novel though it does not go to some of the weirder spaces in the novel. It tells the story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), an intelligent child born in impoverished rural conditions who aspires to get away from his family by becoming a driver for the youngest son of a rich family.
Balram’s family is controlled by his grandmother (Kamlesh Gill), a tyrannical despot who, according to Balram’s voiceover, sucked his father dry. His father was a rickshaw puller who gave all his money to the matriarch and then died. Though she doesn’t have many scenes, the ones with the grandmother are quite chilling; she urges Balram to eat because she has “prepared chicken curry especially for him” even while controlling his life and purse strings. Balram convinces her to sponsor his driving lessons so that he can apply for the position of junior driver for “The Stork” and his family – the landlords who control the slum where Balram’s family resides – in return, Balram must send all of his wages back to his grandmother.
This is the first in a series of calculated moves Balram makes to escape his situation. He describes the social and hierarchical culture of India as like a chicken coop (and here, the chicken curry Balram’s grandmother foists on him takes an added significance); people are trapped in their claustrophobic wire cages, calmly watching as the butcher comes to pluck and slaughter one of them. Within the Stork’s family compound where Balram works, he is treated abysmally: sworn at, pushed around, slapped, misused and abused in the most humiliating and excruciating ways. He smiles and plays a deferential role, even going so far as to shower compliments on his employers and abusers, calling them ‘family’ and saying they are like parents to him and that they treat him wonderfully. I suppose that they are like family if by family he means his grandmother, but they do not treat him wonderfully.
However, Balram is no naïve simp; he’s quite aware of where he stands and his place in things, and what he must do to survive. When the youngest son in the family, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) returns from America with his bride Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), Balram blackmails the senior driver into leaving so that he can take the spot of driver for Ashok. Balram develops quite the fixation on Ashok, hoping his new young master from abroad may be kinder and even form a bond with Balram. Though Ashok and Pinky are nowhere near as vicious as the rest of their family, they are deeply flawed individuals. After Pinky insists on driving the jeep one drunken night, she kills a poor child, and the family insists that Balram sign a legal document that assigns the blame to him. He realizes afterwards that he should have asked for money in return for his perjury and his fury mounts.
As things deteriorate, he ferries around Ashok who takes bags of money to government officials on behalf of his family in order to grease the wheels of power. Balram realizes that the only avenue he has to escape “the chicken coop” is to kill Ashok during one of these deliveries and make off with the money. He knows that if he does this, the landlords will kill his family and he has to reckon with whether to pay that price or remain where he is. The decision is nudged by his resentment for his grandmother and family who care nothing for Balram’s individuality or happiness.
Once again, this is an extremely competent film that is not a big budget vehicle but moves cleanly through its paces. You won’t particularly remember the cinematography or editing or performances but the writing does a good job of capturing the thrust of the original novel without necessarily matching its tone. It’s been some years since I read the original novel but I remember it being more bitter and acidic than the film.
There were also some edgier moments like when Balram saves up a significant amount of his money in order to sleep with a white woman, something an acquaintance assures can be fixed. When the anticipated event arrives, it’s a miserable experience for Balram, shattering all his expectations. In the book, Balram is not a likable character; it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to see him as unaware, even after he has become a self-made man. The satire and outlook are so stinging that it’s hard to feel good in any way after having read it. These edges are sanded down in the movie, despite still maintaining a sere outlook.
This image of India – a place where those without power bow and scrape while those with power bribe and connive, a place of poverty and shit, corruption and abuse – is etched into public consciousness. How true is this as a decisive appraisal of Indian life? I am not Indian (though I’ve often been taken for one) but I have visited India and can’t deny that this culture of bowing and scraping is somewhat etched into the cultural hierarchy. At the same time, while rigid social hierarchies remain in place, there is a bitter irony and combativeness that is also etched into people’s consciousness and where they stand in that hierarchy. This anger cannot be erased with talks of spirituality or holiness or political panaceas. It was horrific to watch the clips of policemen using long sticks to beat people walking to work in the streets (many of these people felt they could not afford to miss work) during the Covid lockdowns almost a year ago. The constant reports of riots and rapes and mob killings and bribery scandals aren’t reassuring either. I’m not saying that this is all there is to Indian life – however, since this is the subject matter the film deals with, that is what I’m examining. It’s not like we don’t have problems of our own in North America – I’m just interested in looking at what allows these particular problems to flourish in Asian societies.
In North America, our problems stem from an excess of individuality; everyone needs to feel special and successful and a star. In Asian communities, individuals are only allowed to feel this way if they have clawed their way to the top of the hierarchy, or at least a suitable plateau. Men lord it over women. Those with power and money and status lord it over those who do not. And adults lord it over children. It keeps the whole cycle going and by people striving to get ahead (or at least get by), they nourish the wheel that grinds them down. In The White Tiger, Balram, once he is successful and has established his own company of drivers, says that the present future will be the era of the brown man and the yellow man, and no longer that of the white man. I don’t think it’s that simple. Due to history, the ‘white man’ will always have an edge but the other sides of the world are too large to be ignored. Perhaps there is an alternate quantum universe somewhere where history happened differently but we do not live there. It is like walking into a casino, losing big at blackjack, and then telling the croupier you want to hold on to your money because you think the cards will go differently during the next few games.
The brown South Asian (as opposed to the African American or the Native American or the Central American who also fall under the blanket term of ‘brown’) is different from those other categories of “brown people.” Unlike other groups, we do not assert ourselves in the same way in terms of cultural identity or vociferousness. We save the vociferousness for fighting amongst ourselves. When it comes to cultural expression, too often the classical tropes of dance, Bollywood, and enlightenment are the things fallen back on. When it comes to asserting our individuality and identity, we yo-yo somewhere between the saintly asceticism of Gandhi and the revolutionary fervour of Bangladesh (not to mention other parts of the subcontinent of course). It’s the in-between we struggle with.
White people can hardly be blamed if we do not stake a modern and authentic identity for ourselves first. Because success and fitting in have been historically ingrained into us, South Asian brown people will at least attempt to adapt and succeed in the hegemonic power structures they find themselves in before venting their anger through disruptive and revolutionary means. At best, this has resulted in a checkered success. If, as Balram in the film seems to think, Chinese economic powers are on the ascendance while American ones are in decline, there is no guarantee that East Asian communities will feel any more affinity for brown populations than white ones. We will always have to go through the individual struggle of realizing our own worth and self-actualization first. This is largely a lonely and difficult struggle, whether it’s in regards to resisting the orders of your family and determining what to do with your life or a collective struggle for dignity and cultural preservation. But it is a struggle worth taking and more importantly, is the only path I know of to true self-worth, happiness, and worthwhile success. All other paths are simply chains on the wheel, one way or another.
Coming back to The White Tiger, we have to ask the question: is Balram truly liberated by the end of the film? What is the film saying? This is a hard question to answer because the film is happy to follow Balram’s narrative without really questioning his choices. He is certainly economically liberated because he has used the social hierarchy for his own ends and the film suggests that tech and other business opportunities are disrupting some of the old ways of life in India. However, Balram has to pay a heavy price in order to achieve this ‘liberation’ (the act of murder, plus the resultant massacre of the rest of his family). Is Balram actually self-aware or has he just become more conniving and savvy than he once was? He has to adopt a new identity and name after committing the crime that gives him the money to start anew but is this truly a rebirth as he claims, or simply a fraudulent existence? The metaphor of the “white tiger” (a rare breed of tiger with white fur) is applied to that ‘rare Indian’ who overcomes his place in the chicken coop but the “white” signifier also suggests that old hierarchy of colonialism, Aryanism, and caste that India has been plagued with.
The film that this movie should be paired with is perhaps Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (The White Tiger makes a quick allusion to this film during one of Balram’s voiceovers) but Boyle’s film (also an adaptation) suggests the possibility of hope, the dream that one can innocently escape the painful and abusive bonds one is born into if fortune and circumstance are on one’s side. I don’t know if either of these films are ultimately useful in terms of understanding the very real and personal and painful oppressions brown people face. Foucault’s idea that both the oppressor and the oppressed are bound by such a relationship, to both their detriments, is ultimately more useful, in my humble (or as a brown person attempting to not live under those shackles, not-so-humble) opinion.
The White Tiger is out now on Netflix