Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger might seem comparable to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s truly more along the lines of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Both films examine the poor-rich divide, the sheer impossibility of social mobility, and the violent consequences that emerge as a result. In terms of cinematography, The White Tiger is a little tamer than Parasite, and while it aptly conveys its Indian setting, the metaphors are a bit on the nose (the rooster coop comes to mind), compared to the subtlety in Bong’s storytelling.
The story begins with the end – Adarsh Gourav’s Balram is now a rich man, an affluent employer with employees under his command, but this isn’t where he started. He brings us back to the beginning, so that we can see how he got from where he was to where he is. The drawback with structuring the narrative in this fashion is that we already know the outcome, so while we’re curious to know the events leading to that, this also dilutes Balram’s problems within the narrative, since we know he is going to swing his way out somehow.
The constant refrain from society is that social mobility is possible through education and hard work. The White Tiger is quick to refute this, since Balram is bright and is recognised to have potential, but his ascent through the educational ranks comes to a screeching halt because his father doesn’t have the money. Socialism may be the party line to the poor, but capitalism is what drives everything. Balram, along with his brother, are inducted into the world of work by their granny – both to slave away in a tea room until they die. This is Balram’s fate, unless he works to change it.
He sees an opportunity when he has the chance to be the driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), so he learns to drive and swindles his way into the job. The pair were educated in the West, so outwardly, they spurn the idea of a master-servant divide, and dislike posturing from the servants that reflect this. They want Balram to look to them as family, yet they are quick to dismiss him when he disgusts them, or treat him as invisible. Gourav’s Balram is like an eager puppy dog, so willing to please and learn, but always made to feel his inferiority and powerless position.
The White Tiger wants you to consider which is worse: the ‘woke’ sensibilities of Ashok and Pinky, or the adherence to a traditional master-servant relationship which Ashok’s brother Mukesh (Vijay Maurya) is a proponent of. At least with the latter, you always know where you stand, and emancipation is a quicker conclusion to arrive at, as opposed to the drawn-out love-hate relationship Balram has with Ashok. We keep waiting for Balram to snap, but Bahrani’s film wants to emphasize how ingrained the servant mentality is. Even when offered a way out, servants choose to stay and serve.
It is frustrating for us to see Balram’s treatment at the callous hands of the rich, and we dread the transformation we know must take place. The thing is, The White Tiger may be a rags-to-riches story, but unlike Slumdog Millionaire, where the main character’s struggles in life are the very thing that allow him to win the prize money, thus justifying their existence, there is no romanticised liberation from poverty here. Balram’s aim was always to be the white tiger, but while the animal may be unique and special, it is nonetheless still caged.
Balram may have achieved social mobility, yet the costs are not minimal. The devastation of his own family, the violence that needed to leak from his own hands – these are realities he has to contend with daily. Moreover, Balram may feel he is a better master, however, he imposes the same cage he was once in, able to mimic but never really act with any of his own sense of agency. This is the great lie we tell ourselves, to chase the big-bellied life because it is better, when in reality, entrapment awaits on all sides.
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Ramin Bahrani's The White Tiger is a competent film (and can even be considered a top-tier Netflix movie) - a roarin' good time that could have used more bite.
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