The White Tiger is a 2021 drama film written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. The movie is based on Aarvind Adiga’s 2008 novel of the same name. The movie, like the book, provides a darkly humorous perspective of India’s class struggle in a globalized world as told through a retrospective narration from Balram Halwai, a village boy. In detailing Balram’s journey first to Delhi, where he works as a chauffeur to a rich landlord, and then to Bangalore, the place to which he flees after killing his master and stealing his money, the movie examines issues of the Hindu religion, caste, loyalty, corruption and poverty in India but where the book had humor and dug deeper into Indian society’s issues, the movie scrapes the issues only at the surface.
The movie stars Priyanka Chopra as Pinky and Rajkummar Rao as Ashok and newcomer Adarsh Gourav as the protagonist – Balram Halwai. Adarsh Gourav as Balram is aptly cast and Rajkummar Rao does well too as Ashok. However, Priyanka Chopra’s take on Pinky comes off as annoying and she plays a bigger role in the movie than in the book (probably to pitch to her feminist fan following, her role is strengthened greatly), which is not a good idea as it reduces the humor which made the book so successful. She and Rajkummar Rao also have an exaggerated American accent which doesn’t seem genuine.
The movie’s plot follows that of the book to a great extent – In 2010, entrepreneur Balram Halwai is shown writing an email to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who was visiting Bangalore then, requesting a meeting, and relating his life story. He states his belief that the Indian underclass is trapped in a perpetual state of servitude, like chickens in a chicken coop. Balram was born in a rural village in Gaya district, where he lived with his grandmother, parents, brother and extended family. He is a smart child but is forced to leave school in order to help pay for his cousin’s dowry and begins to work in a teashop with his brother in Dhanbad. The short depiction of rural life, hits hard and shows a lot of the societal issues plaguing India. While working there he begins to learn about India’s government and economy from the customers’ conversations. Balram describes himself as a bad servant but a good listener and decides to become a driver.
After learning how to drive, Balram finds a job driving Ashok, the son of one of Laxmangarh’s landlords – however in the movie, only two are described – the Mongoose and the Stork. He takes over the job of the main driver, from a small car to a heavy-luxury described Honda City. He stops sending money back to his family and disrespects his grandmother during a trip back to his village. Balram moves to New Delhi with Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam. Throughout their time in Delhi, Balram is exposed to extensive corruption, especially in the government. In Delhi, the contrast between the poor and the wealthy is made even more evident by their proximity to one another.
One night Pinky Madam takes the wheel from Balram, while drunk, hits something in the road and drives away; we are left to assume that she has killed a child. Ashok’s family puts pressure on Balram to confess that he had been driving alone. Ashok becomes increasingly involved in bribing government officials for the benefit of the family coal business. Balram then decides that killing Ashok will be the only way to escape India’s Rooster Coop – Balram’s metaphor for describing the oppression of India’s poor, just as roosters in a coop at the market watch themselves get slaughtered one by one, but are unable or unwilling to break out of the cage.Similarly, Balram too is portrayed as being trapped in the metaphorical Rooster Coop: his family controls what he does and society dictates how he acts.
After killing Ashok by bludgeoning him with a bottle and stealing the large bribe Ashok was carrying with him, Balram moves to Bangalore, where he bribes the police in order to help start his own taxi business. Just like Ashok, Balram pays off a family whose son one of his taxi drivers hit and killed. Balram explains that his own family was almost certainly killed by Ashok’s relatives as retribution for his murder. At the end of the film, Balram rationalizes his actions and considers that his freedom is worth the lives of his family and of Ashok. And thus ends the letter to Jiabao, letting the reader think of the dark humor of the tale, as well as the idea of life as a trap introduced by the writer.
The movie captures several themes including Globalization, the rich-poor divide, casteism, Hindu-Muslim animosity, poverty and individuality. This individuality though appreciated in societies in Europe and the Americas, is frowned upon in most Asian societies. Hence Balram’s characterization as a “White Tiger”, an animal that comes once in a hundred years. The movie captures a lot of what made the book successful – a humorous way of looking at India’s societal problems but its failure lies in deviating from the book just to give Priyanka Chopra’s character a meatier role. It does pander to white audiences by having all of them speak fluent English which ruins the impact of the movie’s main focus – the divide between the rich and the poor.
Watch it if you enjoy Poverty Porn. Especially hard hitting for white audiences – us Indians sadly wouldn’t be perturbed by the movie as most of us have accepted the ills plaguing our society.