The White Tiger is no Slumdog Millionaire story
The White Tiger is no Slumdog Millionaire story
Every once in a while, there comes a White Tiger, a rarity. This film, and the book it is based on, is exactly that. The entire story, narrated by main character Balram, or Ashok, (Adarsh Gourav) as he reads from an email he is writing to the Chinese Prime Minister, is about his rise to success as ‘the Indian entrepreneur’.
What’s The White Tiger about?
The Film begins with Balram’s difficult start in life, in what he calls the ‘rooster coup’, with visuals to accompany of roosters not rattling in their cages, yet knowing what their fate will eventually be. He knows that he will share the same fate if he doesn’t try to get out. Pinky, the wife of his master, (played by Priyanka Chopra-Jonas) plays a pivotal role in Balram’s escalation to entrepreneur. Director Ramin Bahrani tricks the audience by having her speak the line “you were looking for the key for years, but the door was always open”, however when the camera pans back to her it seems she hasn’t truly said this, it is more a reflection of her actions throughout the film that Balram has interpreted as his ‘way out’. But although this may be the case, even before birth he has been moulded to do the opposite, to be a servant.
"It is his uniquely "straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere" nature that allows him to make tough decisions"
To fight this servility is to fight himself. He continuously looks back and thinks why did I do that and what was I thinking to an extent that he shows signs of self-hatred for the actions of his past, but ultimately he ends his letter knowing that without doing all these things, he’d not only be worse off, but he’d be back in the rooster coup, and he wouldn't be the white tiger he set out to be. It is his uniquely “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere” nature that allows him to make tough decisions, and live with them, too. It becomes clear that the only way to succeed by coming from nothing in India’s caste system is to possess all of these qualities, and nothing less.
A far cry from Slumdog Millionaire
This is no Slumdog Millionaire story. There is no million dollar winning question you can answer, which Balram explicitly tells us in an effort show us a realistic climb to the top, instead of a stroke of luck to solve all your problems. In fact, he moves through the whole film without any lucky breaks. If anything, the film is a series of unlucky situations. Situations that convey the severities of the servant/master relationship, the willingness to do anything to please your ‘sir’, to which he changes this at the end to be ‘employer’, an adoption of the western term. This small change in language shows a larger attempt to rebuild India in a new image, and eventually erase the caste system he alone has managed to move away from.
"Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?"
Importantly, he hasn’t become Ashok, his master, though he does adopt his name. This seems to be a way of honouring his death. He poses an important question mid-way through the film: "Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?" One of the first times he drives for Ashok as his servant, his master tells him he may take his name, if he likes it so much. He essentially gives him his blessing to take his life, to take everything from him, and to make his own success. The film never does answer the question, it is instead left open ended, posing as the uncertainties of right and wrong.
"While he can change himself, he is unlikely to change the world."
Balram is the epitome of what it means to be human. We feel like him when we watch the film, we understand why he moves the way he does, because without moving, nothing changes for him. In the novel, Balram thinks about the future of India. "When the veil is lifted, what will Bangalore be like? Maybe it will be a disaster: slums, sewage, shopping malls, traffic jams, policemen. But you never know. It may turn out to be a decent city, where humans can live like humans and animals can live like animals. A new Bangalore for a new India. And then I can say that, in my own way, I helped to make New Bangalore." While he can change himself, he is unlikely to change the world.
Attempting to fit a 300 page novel filled with the complexities of class and social issues into a two hour film is hard enough, but Ramin Bahrani does the best he can with it, and delivers an exceptionally compelling story.
If you enjoy unpredictable thrill rides like Parasite or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we recommend watching The White Tiger which is now streaming on Netflix.