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Movie Review: The White Tiger (2021)

Balram Halwai’s life turned upside down when he finally decided to leave his grandmother’s house and dreamt of a new journey with Ashok, the fancy non-resident Indian son of the local landlord. The film The White Tiger (2021) is based on the Man-Booker prize winning eponymous novel by Arvind Adiga. The book continuous to be one of the best sellers in India and the film, directed by Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani is a big budget bi-lingual production with big name celebrities such as Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkumar Rao in key roles, backed by international giant Netflix. The persons behind the project claim that this is “an extraordinary journey of a self-made man from a tea-shop worker in a village to a successful entrepreneur in a big city.” In India, fictional success stories of tea-shop workers are becoming more and more common, where Balram Halwai joins India’s Prime Minister Modi who thumps his chest regarding his time as a “chai-walla.” Through this review, not only are we attempting to review the plot of the film but also evaluate the bourgeois class outlook that is celebrated on a wide-scale without stepping back and evaluating the political economy behind the narrative being shown.

Brief Synopsis

A promotional poster featuring Priyanka Chopra, Adarsh Gaurav and Rajkumar Rao, L-to-R

To start, in Balram Halwai’s village, he lived under heavy debt of his local landlord, who he mockingly calls the Stork. This is generational debt which he acquired from his father. Balram pretended to find happiness in his under-paid job as a driver where he was exploited in various manners by his employer, Ashok who lived with his wife Pinky. She had completed her medical degree from the USA and had joined Ashok in a visit to his family in India for a few months. Pinky showed deep sympathy with Balram and felt frustrated from the casteist attitude of her father-in-law and brother-in-law. Pinky had a superfluous understanding of class in general, attempting to equate the feudal oppression that Balram was suffering with her own family background in the US as a person coming from a family of small shop owners. This understanding of oppression manifested in Pinky’s attitude towards Balram and her suggestions towards Balram, whom she told to better groom himself and carry himself in a manner suitable to members of the bourgeois classes. Pinky’s hypocrisy rises visibly as she runs over a homeless child while driving drunk and the family forces Balram to take the fall for it. Balram imagines a scenario of what would happen if he chose to resist, where he realises that his large family back in his village would be shot dead and payment would be extracted from them instead. As Pinky exited Ashok’s life after this incident, Balram took the mantle of personally caring for his master, considering it his responsibility to his master, informed by the feudal landlord relations that held him hostage. With time, Balram developed a class aspiration and after some planning, kills his master, steals his money and decides to make it big by himself in a new urban centre, vowing to not be the same as his masters. Through this money, he starts a cab service. The film ends with Balram waiting to meet the Chinese premier on his visit to India.

The Ideal Oppressor

Balram Halwai burns a “wanted” poster issued for his capture

This film is much more than only a story of a poor working class man in India. It started with glamorous dialogue from Balram Halwai.“India and China will be the future of the Global Economy,” he proudly claims. He was actually waiting for the Chinese premier to talk about business. But what kind of business is Balram interested in? He was ready to collaborate with the Chinese company to tap the India market through funding and other business ideas. Balram is the perfect example of the nature of the Indian Comprador Bourgeoisie, which is comprador, or in simpler terms, dalaal, from its practice and materiality. While harbouring intentions of global domination, claiming that the “brown and yellow man” would rise ahead of the white man, these false ideas of grandeur only amount to becoming a better agent for imperialism. Balram sees an army of unemployed youths to serve foreign capital to exploit the Indian market and satisfy his personal Interest, in essence, he wants a piece of the pie. To Balram, he is better than his old feudal masters because he does not humiliate his workers, force them to spend most of their days doing domestic chores in his house the way his masters did. To Balram, he is a fair boss, since he gives them their salary on time. Where did this class aspiration come from in Balram?

Brahmanism: Essential Antagonist 

Balram has experienced from his life that nothing is more powerful than money. If people have enough money, they can do whatever they want. The film showed this with their portrayal of a clear nexus of politicians and businessmen. It demonstrates the actual nature of the Indian working class. Balram joined Ashok as his driver but he does all his household work including cleaning, cooking, etc. The film also introduces the character of the “Great Socialist”, a populist Dalit politician who is socialist in name only, a feature she shares with most of India’s parliamentary left. In one of her visits to the Stork’s mansion, the Great Socialist humiliates the landlords. Balram was delighted witnessing a Dalit woman disgracing the landlord in front of him but was shot back in reality the very next moment as his master screamed at Balram to leave the room, reminding him of his position in the house. In India, Balram is not just a worker who is paid for his fixed hours job. He has to face the economic and extra-economic coercion form his owner because he belongs to a lower caste of the Halwais, a traditionally sweet-making caste group. The politician, who came from oppressed caste background too, did not show any sympathy for him, only engaging in lip service through her political program while helping oppressive landlords and capitalists like the Stork in getting better government tenders for mining projects, taking large sums of money from the landlords for the task. She actively served her class interests in the process. This is is the complex character of bureaucratic capitalism. The so-called Great Socialist had completely brahmanized herself to experience social mobility and what Balram was experiencing was the reproduction of brahmanical order in this country. The internal assimilation of the ruling class to all outside the endogamous caste boundaries was exposed in front of the driver.

The director has engaged in a masterful characterization of the landlord. Out of severe economic destitution, low productivity of agriculture and unavailability of land for their livelihood and new crop cultivation, villagers have to take loans from the landlord. A generation after his father, Balram is still paying the remaining debt of his village landlord without raising a single question against his exploitation. Through labor exploitation and absorbent interest rate on land, he generated surplus wealth and started a coal mining project. The Indian big bourgeoisie class emerged from the feudal kings, landlords, Diwans, comprador traders and money lending classes that helped further the goals of British imperialism in India. This class played an important role in allowing the British to loot the resources of our country.

These feudal classes retain their feudal class outlooks as well. This is shown in how the landlord and his elder son, the Mongoose, interact with Pinky. They expected that she should follow the feudal norms of the family and never appreciated her involvement in political-economic decision making. Brahmanical order in India functions on an endogamous hierarchy-based society. Younger people are expected to follow the words of elders without questioning their decisions. Women are expected to follow the words of the men in the household, and so on. Such is the norm.

Coronation of George V in India, 1911

Democracy Versus Reality

The White Tiger presents a sharp contrast to the Indian system, presenting the contradiction of the myth of azad prajatantra (free democracy) versus the realities of garib Bharat (impoverished India).

Freedom of what and freedom for whom, we ask.

A large section of poor people in this country are unable to access public services like police or medical services. When discussing the murder committed by Pinky in her drunken stupor, addressing if any witness from the homeless persons on the streets would testify against the lie being told, Ashok’s brother said, “just leave the matter to Balram. Police won’t believe anyone’s testimony. They won’t even be allowed in the police station.” Class nature of the Indian bureaucratic system actually functions like this, where criminals are determined from their class position and caste backgrounds. Some people reduce this whole structural oppression up to prejudice, but this is the class-caste violence of India’s feudal bureaucratic system, where the whole section of the ruling society presumes criminal nature of large sections of Indian society without any proof or verification, considering criminal tendencies among them as natural. Freedom functions on the whims and fancies of the comprador bourgeoisie and the feudal landlords.

Fascism and the Aspirations of New India

A cartoon mocking Narendra Modi’s often cited past as a tea vendor

Early on in the film, Balram is told that he is a white tiger. He is special, because in a destitute school where no student can say or understand a word of English, Balram showed interest in his education and learned the language. But Balram ends up as the white tiger for the ruling classes instead. The prophecy made for him was not because of Balram’s extraordinary resistance to his material conditions, but of the appreciation that he had potential to be an agent of exploitation in contrast to his peers who would join the rest of the exploited masses. For the rest of his classmates, Balram was just an old tiger which had been captured by the ringmaster of the circus for the play. This captured tiger is important to establish the competition-based society and for giving direction as well as aspiration to the rest of the people on what exactly is the blueprint for “correct” rebellion against exploitation. It is not class struggle, the film says. It is assimilation into Brahmanism. Now, Balram is the class-caste oppressor against the same section of people. He is selling the aspirations to all working class persons that one day, you too can be in my place, without giving any explanation. This is ignorance of how Balram actually came to his position. The writers sell a hollow dream of mobility to the petty-bourgeoisie section of the country. It is reminiscent of the various propaganda movies that have come since the onslaught of neoliberalism in India, one that sells an India of opportunities where in reality, there are none.

The film is also very much tinged with the growing trends of fascism in India. On one side, films like Kashmir Files serve the anti-Muslim and Indian expansionist propaganda for the Hindu petty-bourgeoisie section, and on the other side, films like The White Tiger are working on the class assimilation. This is part and parcel of the “New India” dream that Hindutva fascism sells. Stimulation of the aspiration of the middle class and decreasing class consciousness of the working class are essential pillars for the development of fascism in India and this film is rife with such character.

by Nishant Anand, student of law at University of Delhi

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