“Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love, or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?’
A provocative question posed in the Oscar-nominated ‘The White Tiger’, adapted from the 2008 novel of the same name. The film focuses on the Indian class divide, following one man’s resurgence from living with his poverty-stricken family in the “darkness” of a remote Indian village, to becoming an entrepreneur in India’s “Silicon Valley”, Bangalore. His progression from servant to businessman exposes farcical Western benevolence, the helplessness of servitude and the disturbing efforts necessary to overcome it.
The plotline masterfully presents the relationship that Balram – its rags-to-riches protagonist – has with his wealthy employers, married couple Pinky and Ashok. The Indian duo have spent their formative years in America, and thus allude to Western values that oppose the rigid Indian class system. Pinky, in particular, attempts to inspire Balram to evade his existential servanthood, and to nurture ambitions beyond employment as a driver with her family. However, when Pinky drunkenly kills a child whilst driving the car that Balram usually drives, she and Ashok permit their family to frame Balram.
Firstly, there is little to condemn in the film’s first half. The opening scene depicts the crash, foreshadowing the plot’s later dark turn. This scene is closely followed by Balram’s narration detailing the Indian storytelling tradition as being interlinked with religion. Balram’s devotion to his employers mirrors religious devotion: he refers to Ashok and Pinky as being like his parents. He comforts them even as their family destroys him. He quells their anxieties, even when those anxieties encompass the hit-and-run crime borne from self-indulgence and the laissez-faire attitude afforded to the rich. In turn, the couple perceive the poor as being “so sweet”. They avoid their taxes. Their entitlement is laden with the Western refrain that anyone can make it. Balram need only change his attitude, assures Pinky, and his life can be transformed.
The plotline intelligently conveys the gaslighting that the privileged impart to those that they are complicit in oppressing. Balram’s family would be killed were he to betray his master (as they likely are when he eventually kills Ashok). In India, one cannot simply stumble upon success in a manner reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire’s Jamal Malik.
Unlike many Western depictions of Southern Asia, The White Tiger’s script resists romanticising India to appease the white gaze. Contrastingly to the recent televised adaptation of ‘A Suitable Boy’, the film does not consist of pale-skinned heroes in ethereal landscapes. This plotline is far grittier, far more political and more elegant. In fact, integral to the story is a subversion of the white gaze. Capitalism has failed India. It is capitalism, not insanity, that eventually transforms innocent Balram from worshiping his master, to being an ardent believer in the power of the ‘Entrepreneur’ – even when he murders Ashok and sacrifices his family to attain entrepreneurial enlightenment. Is his corruption more justifiable than Ashok’s because he has had to fight for his business empire, instead of it being handed to him?
The plot poses these questions with poignancy and ferocity. However, one element of the story that feels like a surplus embellishment is the plotline being recounted as an email that Balram sends to the Chinese Premier, bragging about sacrifice and triumph, and proposing business affiliations. He suggests future ventures into real estate, and the economic rise of the “brown man” and the “yellow man” (after all, the white man is “so yesterday”). International business and commercial strategy are unnecessary distractions in a plot that focuses primarily on the wronged precariat. These references seem misplaced and represent too radical a shift from Balram’s uneducated, overtly modest character. Yes, this commercial audacity exhibits Balram’s transference from dutiful servant to astute manager. But given the limited clues of Balram’s true nature throughout, this characterisation renders the plot a little far-fetched and his sudden glorification of business ventures quite unconvincing.
Instead of half-heartedly referencing international business, the plot could have conveyed more of the younger Balram’s growing doubt surrounding the necessity of his response to maltreatment and injustice. There are two primary ways in which the storyline conveys the mounting unrest that leads Balram’s pivotal act of violence: the first begins when Pinky leaves Ashok and returns to the US, partially due to Ashok’s family’s cruel treatment of Balram (cue eyeroll of the viewers who have not failed to notice Pinky’s reluctant acceptance of Balram becoming legally culpable for her clumsy little child-slaughter). From here, Balram’s devotion dithers. His entrepreneurship begins in slivers. He sells his master’s petrol to other drivers and offers rides to people around the city when Ashok is preoccupied.
The second way this tension is portrayed is in a powerful scene depicting Balram at the zoo, having just spied Ashok interviewing a prospective driver to replace him. He stands before a pacing white tiger, and traumatic scenes from past injustices accompany the animal’s frantic movements. At the film’s start, the once-in-a-generation creature is introduced by Balram’s school teacher, who compares Balram’s intellect and potential to the white tiger’s rarity. The image’s resurfacing reflects Balram’s near exceptional feat of being on the cusp of renouncing his servitude. It is a powerful demonstration of the realisation that change is attainable.
From here, the murder happens quickly. Balram notices a large bag of money that Ashok carries with him on his business ventures. He kills Ashok with the smashed shards of a glass bottle. Ashok bleeds out on the road. The simple and potent image of Balram driving away with the money indicates his transition from servant to master.
Despite attempts to demonstrate Balram’s escalating ambitions, his murder of Ashok and sudden business flair represent a suspiciously swift shift in Balram’s disposition. Granted, Balram’s business ethos counters the exploitative nature of his past employment: he ensures fair pay to his staff and holds himself accountable for any accidental road killings that they commit. But sowing seeds of rebellion via scenes of illicit side-jobs and one light-bulb moment is insufficient evidence of a complete reversal in Balram’s temperament. It is very plausible that the betrayal and manipulation to which Balram is exposed could inspire such violence: the plotline clearly reflects the exploitative power dynamics between man and servant. And yet, in a rushed transformation spanning just a few minutes, Balram becomes a proud murderer (terming it “an act of entrepreneurship”) and a savvy businessman.
There are two ways in which I would alter the storyline to more smoothly portray Balram’s ventures. The first would be to remove Balram’s correspondence with a Chinese Premier; whilst this may provide nuance to the plot in the original novel, a scripted retelling lacks space for too many references to international sales and foreign affairs.
The second change that I would make would be to indicate Balram’s increasing rage and despair by displaying more frequently an underused motif: the film’s namesake, the white tiger. References to animals are prevalent throughout: Balram describes the conditions of poverty as living “like chickens in a coop”, and Pinky swerves past a cow before hitting the child. In Indian society, the life of a poor person is worth less than the life of a cow. Ashok’s vegetarianism is a satire of the rich’s self-indulgent care for some causes, alongside their hoarding of wealth and power to the detriment of the poor.
Conversely, the white tiger is a symbol of the blessed extraordinary; the chicken that “made it out of the coop”. But the white tiger symbol would be more a potent enhancer of the plot’s themes of cunning, power and wealth (or lack thereof) were it subtly shown throughout. In the same way that other animals are granted sporadic and understated appearances to generate themes of exploitation and fear, the white tiger could have quietly appeared on a leaflet, shopfront or unfocused billboard in Balram’s flickers of resentment. This would be a non-intrusive means of developing Balram’s character to make the plot a little more vivacious. The murder is likely to have been intentionally volatile compared with the slower pace of the rest of the film, to demonstrate the violence of his despair and rage. However, Balram merited more than being a technique to convey one servant’s ‘boiling point’ – viewers should have known him as more than merely an enactment of what a poor man is, versus what a poor man could become. Less of a focus on the fundamentals of business and politics, and a greater commitment to the subtleties that substantiate the complex decisions of the protagonist, would have more clearly focussed his journey from heroic victim to heroic perpetrator.
And what of love? Does Balram love the man whom he kills? Or are love and loathing less oppositional when one’s obsession is wealth and power? In truth, the focus of Balram’s fixation does not shift at all, whether he is slave or master. The White Tiger is a fantastic exploration of the price that a slave must pay for his freedom.