Released 2021. Director: Ramin Bahrani
RAGS-TO-RICHES STORIES ARE BY NATURE ASPIRATIONAL AND UPLIFTING. Who doesn’t love an underdog who overcomes the odds and rises above expectations? These are characters in whom audiences often find resonance and inspiration.
The White Tiger, based on the Booker prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, belongs to this genre but I’m not sure if the “hero” is to be admired or held up as a cautionary tale. This is a dark portrayal of contemporary India steeped in rigid caste system, the unbridgeable gulf between the haves and the have-nots and a rising anger that finally pushes our protagonist over the edge.
As a young boy, Balram learns how to read but his potentials are derailed when his father dies of tuberculosis and Balram is taken out of school to work. Like millions of kids whose families live hand to mouth, Balram toils in child labour. Much of the economy in Balram’s village is controlled by the landlord they call the Stork, who always arrives in his shiny car to collect money from the families. Balram nurses a mix of fascination and admiration for the wealthy boss-man and as soon as he is old enough, he gets himself a license and tracks down the landlord’s opulent house in the city.
With a blend of smarts, charm, tenacity and an ingratiating personality, Balram wiggles his way into the family, even making himself the chief driver because the young man is shrewd and knows a golden opportunity for blackmail when he sees one. He should really make friends with the Kim family from Parasite. They’d have so much to share swapping stories about the underclass living in the shadow of the privileged.
Balram’s absolute slavish devotion to his employer endears him to the household. His eagerness to please and belittle himself has no limits. Whatever the boss wants, Balram gets it done without complaint.
The family’s younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) are western-educated and less adherent to a strict master-servant relationship. Balram looks up with wide-eyed dedication to the rich and handsome couple who treats Balram like a poor cousin who lives with them and drives them around. They are kinder than the old man Stork and his other son, but the ingrained condescension and patronising attitude remains. On one of their nights out to a costume party, something terrible happens. This is the point when everything starts to change and Balram finds himself in a fragile position to be manipulated into becoming a scapegoat.
Adarsh Gourav gives a fascinating and riveting performance as Balram. Most of the time it’s tricky to know for sure if Balram is naïve or cooking something in his head. We see a wildly ambitious young man willing to strip away self-respect for a “dream job”, someone torn between loyalty and survival, someone pushed to the brink and bites back hard. The transformation in the end is a makeover that would stump even Balram’s hurtful and unforgiving grandmother.
The family with money is painted as the villain, rightly so with their corrupt political connections, intimidation and coercion tactics. Even Ashok and Pinky eventually turn their backs on Balram to save their own skin. Ultimately, Balram is not family and will be the first one to be thrown under the bus.
The betrayal felt by Balram turns disillusionment to resentment to murderous rage. It’s no surprise the movie condones Balram’s actions and absolves his crime completely since it’s told from the man’s own perspective. From the start, Balram narrates his story in an e-mail to the visiting Chinese premier, the same man whose hand he will shake later. Balram the rising entrepreneur of a new India is hobnobbing with foreign political heavyweights. This boy who grew up barefoot in mud now commands a business empire of his making. Balram has become a real slumdog millionaire and the movie celebrates him as a new paragon of success.
The White Tiger is an ethically thorny tale of class struggle told by a charismatic storyteller with a sly wink and a smile. I’m over-simplifying a complex issue when I say the movie suggests that in a place like this, crime is the only way to get yourself out of poverty (besides politics). But I’d bet that’s the message that comes across the clearest, which is what makes this “hero” a controversial role model for those who identify with him.
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