The White Tiger could have been an authentic social drama, a la Parasite, but ends up as a missed opportunity

The makers of The White Tiger and A Suitable Boy can’t be held guilty for the white gaze, far from it. What these pieces of content lack, however, is not enough of the Indian gaze.

Karishma Upadhyay January 30, 2021 09:19:49 IST
The White Tiger could have been an authentic social drama, a la Parasite, but ends up as a missed opportunity

Adarsh Gaurav and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in a still from The White Tiger | Image from Twitter

When Parasite was nominated for last year’s Academy Awards, there was a mad rush to watch Bong Joon-ho’s social satire that broke down class disparity, with small moments of joy, with humorous twists and a Machiavellian family who shouldn’t have been likeable but somehow manages to be. I watched the Korean film with subtitles but that took little away from the film. A year before that, Alfonso Cuarón mesmerised us with Roma and along the way, smashed two myths with his masterpiece. First, that colour isn’t necessary for beauty to shine through. And second, that art has no language. I watched that one with subtitles too. If there’s one thing that unites great cinema, it’s that its makers don’t feel the need to pander to ‘a wider audience’ - the audience will consume it as is. 

When Netflix announced an adaptation was in the works of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, I had hoped for an evocative desi film that transcended language and cultural barriers. It was a story that had all the right ingredients for a great social drama. So, imagine the mixed feelings when one heard that the film would be directed by an American son of Iranian immigrants. Don’t get me wrong. Ramin Bahrani has made some amazing cinema - from his earlier films like Man Push Cart and Chop Chop to his last film, Fahrenheit 451, Bahrani has shown that he’s not just versatile as a director but someone who’s sensitive to the culture of his subjects. There was no doubt that he’d make a great film, but there was always that nagging feeling that this would end up being one more great Indian story for the world to consume while people back home found it just a tad inauthentic.

The White Tiger could have been an authentic social drama a la Parasite but ends up as a missed opportunity

Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger

Since its release about a week ago, the film has received mostly good reviews from all quarters of the world, except the country where the story is based in. And this isn’t a case of people crying foul over how India is represented, or how the makers of the film are Hinduphobic as is wont for most to assume. This is a case of watching a mostly decent film with a brilliant central performance, but it largely just doesn’t ring true.

It has nothing to do with the film’s opening sequence featuring India’s rich driving drunk in a speeding vehicle through ‘Lutyens’ Delhi, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s poor living on the pavements, and a cow in the middle of the road - all within the first two minutes. Might as well get the stereotypes out of the way as early as possible. Even the fact that the film is primarily in English is understandable if not ideal; after all, we do take pride in being an English-speaking nation. So, having an English-speaking driver from a village in Bihar isn’t so jarring. But it’s when conversations in Hindi are juxtaposed with a smattering of English where it becomes obvious that someone who isn’t from India had made the film.  

Sample this. Balram, a young villager offers his services as a driver to a rich landlord. After speaking a couple of sentences in Hindi he switches to English, which again isn’t the problem; it’s possible he wants to show off his knowledge of the language. But when he tells the landlord that a sacrifice was offered in the village “so that you should have more sons to keep rule in the village,” you know it’s a phrase that’s been translated from Hindi. Nobody talks like that in real life. The film has more than a few of these phrases which just sound out of place. For example: who in the world would call bhindi 'garma-garam okra' in all seriousness? The narration itself has a good reason to be in English (it’s an e-mail he’s writing to the Chinese Premier) but phrases like “A good servant must know his master, from lips to anus” just sound idiotic in every sense of the word.

The White Tiger could have been an authentic social drama a la Parasite but ends up as a missed opportunity

A still from The White Tiger | Twitter

Then there's the issue of context. It’s one thing for Balram to be spouting English with his masters, but when he’s having a conversation with another driver, a conversation laden with some of the filthiest Hindi cuss-words, he suddenly switches to English and says, “My master does not do these things. He’s a good man.” One can’t help asking what his motivations for the switch are in this case, unless he was looking at branding himself a know-it-all amongst his peers. The lack of reaction from the other man to the language switch would have you believe it’s how all these conversations take place. 

This isn’t the first time, though, that the retelling of an Indian story has been let down by language.

BBC’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was a mini-series that follows the story of characters living in 1950s India. The show, which dropped in mid-2020 wasn’t guilty of badly formed Hinglish colloquialisms like some of the other India-based content we’ve been seeing in the past few years. This one, however, took the chastity of spoken English to new levels. It’s hard to believe that’s how Indians spoke in the 1950s, like everyone was part of an enunciation test. Over-enunciation is a tool that has worked for period shows, particularly those from the UK, but everyone around the world wasn’t talking like they were living at Downton Abbey. You would expect a director like Mira Nair would have a thing or two to contribute but one never really knows what happened behind those scenes.

This is where a lot of India-based stories being made abroad or as collaborations, seem to get it wrong. Eventually, it’s always the writers and director that make the difference between good content and great content. One just has to look inwards at shows like Made in Heaven to know that conversations in our stories can seamlessly shift between Hindi and English without sounding odd. Why then, should one feel the need to hire writers who don’t originate from this culture? And having an award-winning international director on-board might guarantee great cinema and global eyeballs, but might a local consulting director on set be a worthwhile addition? These are questions that our producers and platforms should ask themselves if they truly want to capture global audiences, while not alienating a captive one. The difference, after all, is the gaze.

The makers of The White Tiger and A Suitable Boy can’t be held guilty for the white gaze, far from it. What these pieces of content lack, however, is not enough of the Indian gaze.

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