The White Tiger, Serious Men, and the altering cultural and social epiphanies of the Indian dream
For years, films have portrayed the Indian working class as mute spectators of social and familial trauma and often the ones with the kindest heart. The White Tiger is somewhat an antidote of the underdog narrative.
In a scene from Netflix’s The White Tiger, the narrator Balram Halwai proposes “The moment you recognise what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave”. It’s one of the more quotable lines from Arvind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel that has made it to Ramin Bahrani’s Netflix adaptation. The Indian dream, however, is a little more complex than simply translating cultural epiphanies to social ones. The latter is not as permeable as individual clarity. To which effect I would rephrase the line to “The moment you recognise what you are owed, you stop being a slave” to fit the India envelope. Beauty can of course also be an extension of self-worth, but on each rung of India’s brutally oppressive social ladder, beauty rests not in finding what’s beautiful but finding what breaks it.
The helper, the driver, the naukar (Ramu kaka) are all faithful servants in the pantheon of Indian cinema, who have delivered, often at the hidden cost of their own desires, seamless service. They’ve been mute spectators of social and familial trauma and are often portrayed as the ones with the kindest heart. Because what else would elite imagination of working-class people paint them as anything but honest and selfless, prideful yet the right amount of pitiable. The White Tiger is somewhat an antidote of the underdog narrative and immediately reminds you of two popular films. The first is Slumdog Millionaire, the global sensation that many see Bahrani’s film as the referendum of. Cinema cannot be thought of politically competitive in itself, but it can be seen as two different lines in the sand, each with a different vision and understanding of its world they’re drawn in.
The other film that Bahrani’s film immediately took me to was Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, one of the most talked-about Indian films in recent history. The White Tiger has little in common with both and is in fact an indirect riposte of their rags-to-riches narrative. While Slumdog Millionaire believes destiny may yet come for the destitute, Akhtar’s Gully Boy wants us to think that talent, some sort of gifted skill, may instead become their vehicle.
The impossibility of both is cleverly crushed by the optimism of the climax, the all’s well that ends well device. Protagonists simmer with rage, but they find ways to channel it or are supplied with an alternative to salvage for the sake of the viewer, the exit of heroism. Heroic because it was done the right way, the only way the elites summon, in their imagination, the will of those below them.
Craft and the prickly sight of a miscast Rajkummar Rao forcing his lines aside The White Tiger abandons a number of tropes that have become the baggage of the middle-class Indian viewer. Like Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, Bahrani’s film marries Balram to his rage, before breaking his moral compass in bed. Balram, the servant starts out wanting to be a servant all his life before he realises that he can be the master of at least one thing, anything, in life – especially when it is bargained away by his master, like a dispensable object. The indignity of witnessing life being transacted like a token of legal gratitude introduces Balram to the possibility of seeing it through the lens of ownership as opposed to tenancy. Anger overtakes moral debt at the precise point where Indian cinema’s protagonists would otherwise choose the virtuous.
In spirit, The White Tiger has a lot in common with Sudhir Mishra’s underrated Serious Men, another takedown of the rags-to-riches narrative where a brilliant Nawazuddin Siddiqui cons his way to the top. Not because it’s his dream, but because it’s his only way out of a nightmare existence. There isn’t the romanticism of making a destination work, because making it work, is the destination for most. India’s inequality ensures that for most people dreams equal survival, in which case the poetry of coincidence is wiped clean by the weight of our prosaic burdens. Yes, often people make it out, but the ones we hear of are the morally hand-dressed achievers whose success we let pass because it seems allowed more than it seems poached. In contrast, he who bends the rules, because they were against him, to begin with, finds himself reprimanded through collective imagination. Because at least when we are, like in the darkness of a theatre, together, we crave the foundations we never cared to build in the light of day.
India’s working class has been fed the miasma of righteousness for ages, instructing them to do the right thing unto right happens to them. It’s near-sighted but it works because a certain class gets to perpetuate the myth of what ‘clean’ looks like. We get to make ads telling people white means honesty, even though it probably accounts for the most dishonest gentry this country has to offer. To soothe the wounds of those below us, every once in a while, we launch a ballad of class-breaking love or caste-breaking careers, just so the smell of success remains incoherently tangled in the stench of survival.
Films like Serious Men and The White Tiger, however, channel a welcome fury against the odds without wanting to entertain the bet. Because the Indian dream is neither as linear nor as undefiled as a misleadingly straight line in the sand. It is instead the like sea knotted, anguished and inseparable from the suffering of its last wave.
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