dir: Ramin Bahrani
Right from the start, right off the bat, let me tell you something for free: This is the best movie about murdering someone in order to become a successful businessman that I have ever seen.
Any other movies that you’ve seen where someone murders people in order to become successful, they are but as ants at the feet of Alexander the Great.
The great trick that The White Tiger pulls off, that in my eyes Parasite didn’t quite pull off, is that not only is it as good if not better than the novel it is based on by Aravind Adiga that won the Booker Prize in 2008, it makes you almost accept without having too many qualms about it, that the scum of the lower orders sometimes are almost justified in killing their oppressors. That the people at the top of the hierarchy are awful and do awful things, especially to the lower orders, and actively maintain the system which keeps people down. Thus social and societal mobility depends on killing one’s betters, taking their place, and hopefully being kinder to the people below you.
It probably sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but honestly, I’m not. I’m pretty sure neither the main character of Balram (Adarsh Gourav) nor the author are actually advocating that every poor person should rise up and kill the rich. If they were, that would be sweet. The broader societal implications of what Balram is saying only really apply to him. There is no self-help manual on getting out of The Darkness, as he calls it, or, alternately, the rooster coop, other than desperately fighting your way out.
One of the more shocking aspects of the novel, for me, someone who knows little about India and its multitudes, is just what an appalling picture it paints of Indian society, and the prevalent system apportioning personal worth we refer to as the caste system. They don’t call it that, because ‘caste’ isn’t a Hindi word. But there are moments in the film where Balram is asked what his caste is, in order for the asker to know whether Balram is a higher order of scum or a lower order of scum.
He takes a while to answer. He is of the Halwei cast, the sweet maker caste, which is considered one of the lower castes. Boo, hiss you lower orders, get back to your awful villages and make sweets for us, you presumptuous scum!
In stories like this, and there are millions of them, life in the village is sometimes depicted as idyllic, as pure and wonderful, with the main character being forced to travel to the big city in order to learn valuable lessons about what matters, and how the simple life is better than aspiring towards wealth and power.
Not in The White Tiger. Village life is grim. Balram’s family treat him like shit, his ‘sainted’ grandma especially, and all he is, is an earner expected to send money back to grannie no matter where he is and what he does. His village, of Laxmangarh, is in The Darkness: what the protagonist refers to as the rural realm of ignorance, superstition and stupidity from which it is very hard to escape. Even when he improbably gets away, in order to work as a driver, there are painful connections trying to pull him back always, always, always.
There’s an element of the book I recall, that (perhaps thankfully) isn’t in the movie, where Balram talks about the internal colourism even within India itself against the poorest and darkest-skinned Indians, which, I dunno, sounds pretty harsh. No, there’s enough going on here without having to go ‘there’.
In the construct that Balram serves up to us (with the framing device of writing a letter to the premier of China, Wen Jiabao, so it’s set about 13 years ago), wealthy Indians are masters, poor Indians are servants, and the more the servant is abused, the more grateful and groveling they are to their masters. The masters are entirely corrupt, entirely immoral and monstrously abusive. They see the servants as barely human. When a servant is hired, the masters get all the details about the servant’s extended family, so that if the servant fucks up in any way, they know that the masters will exact revenge upon the servant’s family, and the cops will not care.
The masters, in this case, all with their animal names, are the landlords of the village where Balram came from. They are called the Stork, the Mongoose, the Lamb (though only once in passing), and they barely ever even pretend bare civility. They believe that to spare the rod is to spoil the servant, and routinely slam around and belittle Balram just for the sake of it.
As Balram tells us, there is no gameshow you can go on to win your way out of such a system, slyly putting the boot to any delusions we may have had that Slumdog Millionaire was a documentary for self-improvement.
For all the abuses that we watch Balram endure, all the indignities he graciously accepts, I think we know from pretty early on that Balram is not a gentle innocent thrust into a cruel world not of his making who will abide and endure until providence and good fortune repays his forbearance.
No. Fuck no. His loathing for his betters is palpable, even if his relentless voiceover wasn’t already telling us how he really thinks. Yes, he is waiting, but what he’s waiting for is the right time to strike.
Above all of the other ugly depictions of how the wealthy distort and pervert the system in their favour, there is also the matter of how this superior family pay millions and millions in bribes in order to not have to pay taxes to the government. The Great Socialist, in the film version at least, is a mega popular female politician who nonetheless calls these pillars of the community sister fuckers to their faces, and demands even more money that before to be bribed with. She then spits a whole bunch of paan juice onto their coffee table just to show how little respect she has for them.
Huffily, the Stork and his awful sons decide to spend way, way more money in bribes to her political opponents than they ever would have paid in actual taxes for their ill-gotten gains.
Why do they do all this? Well, two reasons, really. One is to show us how intractable, how resistant to change the “system” is, and by “system” I mean “selfish people with wealth and power who never want it to change because Reasons”, and the other is supposedly makes us hate them more and to want Balram to “do” something about his circumstances.
I didn’t mention that one of the superior animals in the barnyard, being the Lamb, has an American-Indian wife called Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), who grew up in the States, and isn’t completely okay with treating the servants like livestock. She sympathises with Balram’s existence in a totally condescending way, and she has some level of basic decency, which, as circumstances indicate right from the very start of the fucking film, when it’s to her benefit, she’s more than prepared to ignore the humanity of those she needs to derive benefit from.
The film starts with that most annoying of story-telling techniques, being the contextless in media res intro where three people are in a car, with Pinky drunk driving, something bad happens, and then the story practically does a needle scratch and has a voiceover jerk say something like “I bet you’re wondering how I got into such a crazy situation. Well, you’ll never believe what happened six months ago when…”
The story jumps back further than that, to when Balram was in school as a kid, and, upon reading one sentence out on a blackboard, some random jerk who appeared out of nowhere in this rural school declares that Balram is a genius, and the rest of the classmates and teacher are worthless scum, and that Balram must go to a better school where his talents can be honed.
But Balram as a boy, to use the technical term from Friedrich Engel’s 1845 masterwork Conditions of the Working Class in England, is poor as fuck, his family is poor as fuck. His father is a rickshaw puller, or the Indian equivalent of a rickshaw puller, and he is so poor he can’t afford to send Balram to this mythically better other school where Balram’s full potential as the white tiger of the title could be unleashed.
No, the father is so goddamn poor he dies of his extreme poverty, in a hospital that doesn’t even have doctors, of a disease that is treatable for the rest of us. This further angers young Balram, convincing him even more that being poor truly sucks.
Balram carries with him not a sense of entitlement, but a firm conviction that he could be doing extraordinary things. His early brilliance as a scholar does not make him any less of an ignoramus by the time he decides to inflict himself upon The Quality, but he is desperate to learn all he can from them.
When asked if he has heard of the internet, he mutters something along the lines of “Of course, and if you need some internets I can run down to the shops and get you some.”
Before we can run towards our wealthy oppressors, we first must learn to crawl towards them with a knife betwixt our teeth: he scams his grannie into fronting him cash so he can get some driving lessons, which involve learning how to operate a vehicle, but more importantly teach him that driving on Indian roads requires nerves of steel, and a readiness to assert one’s right to occupy space on the road as aggressively as humanly possible.
This impresses his masters when he lucks into driving for them, and coping some mild initial abuse. He also has to give a foot massage to the Stork, which, ew, honestly, that’s worse than almost anything else they do to him later on.
He wheedles his way in, but is only the number 2 driver, the head guy because meticulous, and calm, and favoured. Right, he needs to be fucked up right and proper on the first step towards Balram’s self-actualisation.
Again, Balram is not a nice chap. We can argue about just how much of an amoral chancer he is, who holds all religions in equal contempt or in terms of being equally likely to be true, and whether that makes what he does to the secretly Muslim No. 1 driver malicious and Islamophobic or not, more than anything it gives us the clear impression that Balram is capable of things both great and awful.
He begins to shed some of his more appalling personal hygiene issues, his propensity for pulling on his dick in stressful or random times, and even brushes his teeth for the first time, but this doesn’t improve the perilousness of his circumstances. I kinda get the feeling that the insecurity and precariousness is the point.
As the driver of a wealth family, upon the Lamb and Pinky relocating to Delhi, Balram is expected to live with the other drivers, get this, in the fucking cockroach infested car park under the hotel. If I hadn’t grasped the ugliness of lives lived in what is often referred to as the largest emerging democracy in the world, that would have driven it home like a broken bottle to the base of my skull. The men there are everything Balram has tried to get away from, but in the end it is he who learns from them.
The one he loathes the most underneath the hotel he calls Vitiligo (Nalneesh Neel), because the chap suffers from vitiligo, which is an auto-immune condition where your immune system attacks the melanocytes in your skin which create skin pigment, giving a person patches of white skin randomly distributed across their body.
Well, it’s not that random, it’s mostly on hands, feet and faces, but there’s no therapy and no cure.
Does it sound like I had to look that up on Wikipedia, and did a little cheeky cut-and-paste? I assure you I didn’t have to look up a single goddamn word of it.
Balram is disgusted by this man’s appearance, as if it is leprosy, or something mutilating and contagious. Well, I guess it’s even harder for melanin-abundant peoples to deal with vitiligo, such as this jerk in India, but, I have to say, I was more offended by this than even the callous deaths and murders that ensue. As someone living with vitiligo, I never thought our existence could provoke such murderous disgust in other people, but you live and learn.
I’m joking about being offended (I will be writing a letter of complaint to my local member of Parliament), but I’m not joking about having vitiligo. And yet where’s my medal, where’s my parade?
The awful wealthy masters, as shown in the opening scene, compel Balram to lie and say he was behind the wheel of the car when someone was killed, and that’s when the penny should drop for Balram as much as for all of us. It’s the moment where he realises that no matter the times when they almost treated him as human, no matter the honeyed words or days of less abuse, he will always be less than expendable to them, and if he doesn’t do something dramatic, something big, he’ll have less than nothing and have to go back to the Darkness from whence he came, and there won’t be a third chance.
We already know that things turn out great for him. We keep seeing scenes of him looking slick, with sharp clothes and stylish facial hair, and even a ponytail. But we also notice that he is alone. He has achieved something, but he seems to be quite isolated. Thankfully, keeping true to the book, there’s no time for a love interest or some other time wasting with healthy, human relationships and sexuality. It may be ruthless, and it may be cold, but Balram’s entire purpose seems to be becoming one of the wealthy, in order to do less harm once he gets to the top, and the eternal question of “and then what?” doesn’t really come into it.
Only time will tell, and only the viewer can judge whether it was worth it, let alone whether it was all justified.
I fully admit that this is not an uplifting story above the inherent positivity of someone surviving when other people live to destroy them, not only for profit, but also because they don’t give a fuck, but I found it to be an immensely enjoyable tale to watch unfold. I loved watching someone cast off the shackles of his oppression, of his servility, of his cultural programming. I am not pro-murder, and I’m not going to bother making the moral case for how or why Balram might have been justified in doing what he does. He wasn’t, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference. He makes choices, terrible ones that impact people beyond himself, but in watching someone struggling to achieve some kind of agency, some modicum of autonomy, to fucking live, and I can’t begrudge him that.
I have tried to capture why this film delighted me, but I’m sure I’ve left a lot out. I think it’s a marvel, and that it should be taught in all schools from here to Uttar Pradesh and beyond.
10 times he should have taken out the rest of the fuckers before leaving out of 10
“ Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love - or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?” – The White Tiger