Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-prize-winning novel of the same name. It is the story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) who seizes opportunities to escape from the India of darkness to become an entrepreneur in the India of light. He started his journey working as a driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Unfortunate accidents and constant humiliation by his ‘masters’ force Balram to take severe steps to make a life for himself, even if it means sacrificing his family in the process.
The White Tiger tells the story of different dualities with contrasting power. It is about two brothers—the one who has succumbed to his fate and the one who wants to change his fate. It is about masters and servants. It is about rich India and poor India. It is about the upper castes and the lower castes. It is about men with big bellies and men with small bellies. It is about Hindus and Muslims. It is about those who have attained enlightenment and those who continue to live in darkness.
The film uses various visual cues to depict the disparity in the aforementioned pecking order. Early in the film, Balram goes to Dhanbad to find work at the Stork’s place. He is stopped at the gate by one of his men. The iron gate represents the divide in the stature between the two. Servants like Balram are at the bottom of a pyramid while the masters, like Ashok and his family, remain perched at the top. Throughout the film, Balram is often seen gazing above towards the sky signifying his desire for upward mobility. When he finds a job as a driver, he stares at Ashok’s room while standing on the ground. When Balram first enters the apartment in the high-rise building in Delhi, he is excited to see the sky outside but the Mongoose stops him from doing so. While his masters stay above in posh spaces, he is to stay below in the basement where the other servants live. There is no sky, no air, no light, and no window. Only some cockroaches for company. At another stage in the film, the Mongoose makes Balram sign the confession papers after the accident. Balram is livid at his own self for acquiescing without a whimper. He goes out and hides in the grass outside. He is filmed from the top of the building making him smaller than life, like a minuscule ant. He is only a pawn who can be sacrificed at the will of his masters.
Balram’s living in the basement reminded me of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite that also used height and stairs to represent the class hierarchies. In the house of the Parks, one had to ascend stairs at the gate outside, again while entering, and then another time while going up to their bedroom. The previous housekeeper and her husband were trapped in the basement of the house. The Kims had to descend the endless stairs of the city to reach their house that was located in a semi-basement. These stairs represented wealth, prosperity, and privilege. Another similar moment in The White Tiger that is reminiscent of Parasite is the time when Balram tells Vitiligo-Lips driver that his master Ashok is a good man, who contradicts him by saying that he is a rich man. In Parasite, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) keeps harping on the point that Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) is a nice lady even though she is rich. To this, his wife replies that it is because she is rich that she is nice. If she had that much money, she will be ‘nice’, too. And, of course, there is the overarching similarity in the theme of the two films where the driver kills his master. At some other stage in the film, Balram counts the floors in the skyscraper which was reminiscent of the steps-counting scene of Murad (Ranveer Singh) in Sky’s (Kalki Koechlin) apartment in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy. There is a scene in the bathroom in The White Tiger, too, when Balram puts Pinky’s expensive deodorant on himself when he is cleaning it.
Parasite and The White Tiger
Parasite and Gully Boy
The White Tiger uses the motif of Buddha’s enlightenment to portray the darkness of contemporary India. Early in the film, an officer asks a young Balram to read a passage written on the board. We live in a glorious land. The Lord Buddha received enlightenment in this land. We are grateful to God that we are born in this land. Balram moves to Dhanbad to work as a driver for Ashok. He drives Ashok to his relatives’ place and keeps showing them the (fake) sights associated with Buddha’s enlightenment. Before the accident, a poor girl at a traffic stop comes running to sell a tiny statue of Buddha to Pinky. She buys it and gives it to Balram who keeps it with him all through life. At a later stage, moments before he kills Ashok, Balram tells him a story of a cunning Brahmin trying to trick Buddha by asking him if he considers himself man or god. The Buddha replies, “I’m just the one who has woken up while the rest of you are still sleeping.” Finally, in the end (as it is also shown in the beginning), Balram is sitting in his office in the pose of Buddha. He has moved from darkness to enlightenment. He lives in the light now. While Gautam Buddha attained spiritual enlightenment, Balram has attained material enlightenment.
India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi. So, there is also the appearance of Gandhi in The White Tiger. The film opens with a shot of Mahatma Gandhi and his followers from Gyarah Murti in Delhi that commemorates the famous Salt March from the Indian independence movement. Pinky is driving the car rashly with Balram sitting nervously behind. The statue appears again when Ashok and the Mongoose are driving around the city after paying a large sum of bribes to a politician. The statue shows up for the third time when the opening sequence is repeated to leading to the events of the hit-and-run accident. This statue has, perhaps, been highlighted to depict the contrast between the values of Gandhi and present-day India. As Ashok says, the world’s largest democracy is a joke. It is also not surprising then that at a later point in the film, he is seen watching Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, a dark satire on the greed and political corruption in contemporary India. Adiga’s book has more portions on Gandhi where the man in the village for whom Balram works is known by the photograph of Gandhi in his shop but the film pares it down a bit.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro
The most remarkable aspect of the film for me is Paolo Carnera’s cinematography. The White Tiger insists that there are two Indias, so, it uses the colors of the Indian flag in its palette to underscore the differences between them. The Indian flag keeps making an appearance in the film, such as cars, and trains. This palette is also seen in different places and objects throughout the film (as seen in the images below). The places where the rich people live are lit with orange; the places where the poor people live are lit in green. This color lighting is most visible in the scenes in Delhi when Ashok lives in the fancy apartment above while Balram lives in his tiny basement room below. At the end, when Balram moves away from darkness, the place he stays is located on the first floor and is lit in orange in complete contrast to the scenes above. It is signifying that he has made it. Even later, when Balram goes to bribe the inspector in Bangalore, the police station is lit in the hues of orange-red again signifying power in that color. This was also seen in the opening scene of the film where the Dandi March statue is lit up in shades of orange and green. While Gandhi is lit up in orange, the people following him are lit up in green which again represents light and darkness as also described by Adiga in the book as, “This is a well-known statue, which you will no doubt see in Delhi: at the head is Mahatma Gandhi, with his walking stick, and behind him follow the people of India, being led from darkness to light.” Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men also used light in a similar vein to represent its protagonist’s desire to become visible. I have written about it here.
Orange and Green
And, then, there is the constant appearance of animals in The White Tiger. Balram is compared to the rarest of animals, the white tiger, who comes along once in a generation. Balram’s mustache resembles the whiskers of a tiger. Characters are addressed as the stork, the mongoose, the lamb, and the buffalo. Students read about crocodiles in their books. Roosters, crows, and monkeys keep going in and out. Life is nothing less than a jungle and man is a (social) animal.
The film rests primarily on the superb performance of Adarsh Gourav as Balram. I liked Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Pinky; her accent does not feel jarring and fits with the narrative. Rajkummar Rao as Ashok was also good; his accent did not bother me much. The performances that do not work much are those of the supporting cast members, such as, Kamlesh Gill as Daadi, who still has that Vicky Donor-ish Punjabi vibe. She does not fit the milieu. Also, as this is a film that is designed for a global audience, it would have been better if they made it entirely in English instead of alternating, at times, it with Hindi. However, the main issue was that its story is not that thrilling. The book had left me lukewarm as well. And, with its story similar to that of Parasite which was also a far more gripping film, The White Tiger pales in comparison. Nevertheless, the film is competently made and a better film than I thought it would be.
Balram compares the predicament of servants in India to the rooster coop syndrome. Roosters in a coop at the market watch one another slaughtered one by one, but are unwilling to rebel and break out of the coop. Similarly, India’s poor people see one another crushed by the wealthy and powerful, defeated by the staggering inequality of Indian society, but are unable to escape the same fate. At one point, Pinky asks Balram what does he want to do in life. He replies that all he wants is to serve the family. She admonishes him and says that she got out and he needs to do the same. The White Tiger is about this escape. At a later stage, Balram reflects that men, like him, born in the coop do not have the choice to be good. It is a cynical, dark, and desperate statement. In contrast, there is the hope of Gully Boy where Murad leaves the job at his uncle’s office because he did not like the way he was treated there. His uncle told him that a servant’s son can only be a servant. His father concurs with him that it is the truth but Murad says, “Koi dusra batayega mereko main kaun hai?” Will someone else tell me who I am? Murad finds success as a rapper. Both Balram and Murad are rare cases who they made it, but for many others, life is spent waiting to win a million-dollar game while singing Apna Time Ayega.
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