Balram Halwai, the protagonist of The White Tiger, would have you believe that before any other label engulfs him, he is an Indian entrepreneur. The label of a murderer, a man emerged from ‘the darkness,’ or that of an ex-driver for the son of a wealthy and influential landlord is secondary.
The White Tiger, released early this year, is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel by the same name. The movie provides an incisive narrative of the glaring class divide in India—and it does this humorously. The truth of the class divide is rather simple, as explained by Balram: the ones who live in ‘the darkness,’ who come from the castes of the narrow bellied and tuberculosis stricken; the ones from drought-struck villages, who make up 90% of India’s population are caught in a chicken coop. They see their fate played out in front of them through others caught in the same coop and they see their kind slaughtered right in front of them, yet they do not try to escape. That is their fate.
“the trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy”
This is how Balram ends his philosophy with a macabre finality. As he says this, the movie displays montages of tired men cycling in rags, carrying furniture worth several lakhs, and being paid less than a hundred rupees for it. The dialogue ends with such a man bowing down to a woman in front of a mansion, displaying his thanks for being paid a meagre amount for his service—the people caught in the chicken coop do not try to escape. This is their fate.
The film takes this simple philosophy, as thought of by Balram, and expands it into a carefully embroidered, gritty and rusted story that climaxes with a murder. Not once does the film slack in its depiction of the class divide—cities, when they belong to the caste of the big-bellied are grand, boasting of malls, clubs, people who converse seamlessly in English and wear short clothes. The same cities, when they belong to their populous, but largely overlooked counterparts are crowded, immobile, and reek with the stench of hate, crime, resentment, and, of course, open defecation. Throughout the movie, we see shots of crowded cities choked with poor people, and in the very next shot, open tennis courts, big residences occupied by not more than two people. We are very clearly shown how the rich (take, for example, the landowner) are unafraid of claiming the poor and treat the land and lives of the poor as if they already belong to them—like when Balram offers money to a crippled beggar, but receives scalding scorn from his ‘masters’; they treat his money as if it is theirs.
Although this grisly, gritty depiction of urban and rural spaces contributes to how we view the limited accessibility of both public and private spaces, I thought this resolute ugliness veered towards the lauded portrayal of Indian poverty by Hollywood—think slumdog millionaire. This ugliness often felt like an attempt to translate Indian poverty, class and caste to a public who is far too separated from this problem to view it as anything more than entertainment. My saying that the portrayal of poverty often exists as a translation is also a privileged stance—after all, I am also writing this as a big-bellied person who has never had to step inside The White Tiger’s portrayal of ‘darkness.’ But the film often also presents poverty as a thesis; something to be dissected, explained and proved. We see this in the caricatural depictions of the wealthy high-class landlords, the bitter, soulless and money-hungry joint family back in the village and the typical rich, kind of nice, “caste-doesn’t-exist-anymore-papa” Americanized son.
The characters, to prove a point of poverty, lack complexity and emotional depth. They are cruel just because they are. Their actions as a function of their class, caste and religion are one dimensional, and, frankly, a little boring. I mean, what’s new about a wealthy politically-inclined family that’s Islamophobic, casteist and misogynistic? In attempting to present and translate the ‘truth’ about Indian class, the movie misses out on a lot of character depth, choosing, instead, to employ stereotypes. The only redemption to this is a depth of contempt that runs through every character, despite their differences: nobody is happy, everyone wants to be somewhere they are not. The othering is mutual—the poor do not see the rich as one of their own, and of course, neither do the rich.
The only character to break out of the stereotype, though, is the protagonist Balram Halwai, played phenomenally by Adarsh Gourav. If nothing else, I would recommend this film for its exceptional fresh-faced talent. Balram Halwai is probably the only intricately crafted character in the movie. He displays deep concern for his brother, which is laced with equal amounts of contempt. He cares for his ‘master’ (the landlord’s son) like one would care for a brother or a best friend, is hurt by his lack of consideration for him, but still does not hesitate for a second in believing that he has been greatly wronged by this supposedly nice man.
The character of Balram Halwai is also charming and humorous. This humour seeps into the movie, and takes a dense and gritty topic accessible and interesting. We find ourselves agreeing with Balram, even when he is clearly in the moral wrong—we also see how our moral compass is deeply stricken by privilege. While watching the movie, I shamefully recognized some of my behaviours in the behaviour of the privileged. This is exactly where the film gets it right—although the characters portrayed as caricatural, their actions are mundane. They do what we all have done at some point in our lives. To be shown the wrongness of our beliefs and our actions is inherently shocking, and The White Tiger does a phenomenal job of that—shocking us by making our ‘mundane’ classism so lucid, so perceptible.
Shivani Deshmukh is a second year undergraduate at Ashoka University. She studies Sociology and Anthropology.
Picture Credits: Netflix India
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