Move over, Slumdog Millionaire. This is the real deal.
Ramin Bahrani's sprawling tale of a poor young Indian man who rises to become an entrepreneur is an epic saga of inequality, poverty, and corruption. Adapted from the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, it is not your typical feel-good story about plucky self-realization. A first-person narrator, Balram (the extraordinary Adarsh Gourav), tells us his story from rags to riches. The movie begins in the middle when Balram’s eventful life takes a turn for the worse. But at that moment we don’t know who he is. We see him joyously riding in a car with friends. We are in for a rude awakening.
The movie is richly novelistic in its storytelling and in its keen observation of the codependent and perverse relationship between the rich and the poor. In developed countries like the US, the poor and the rich rarely ever intertwine. But in countries like India or Mexico, where I am from, poor servants live in rich houses but are treated as second class humans. The things that happen in this movie may come as a shock to American audiences, but not to anyone who has ever lived in a developing country. Even though it is a story about India, with its cultural and religious particularities, like the caste system, India is not that different from any other developing country. The contempt, fear, and exploitation of the poor are the same everywhere. The poorer the people, the more expendable their lives.
In contrast to the offensively superficial and corny fantasies of Slumdog Millionaire, The White Tiger is a shrewd exploration of the consequences of poverty, the caste system, and the sheer chaotic energy of an unruly country that is predicated on appalling inequality. I have not yet seen a movie that explains more dramatically and efficiently the reasons behind the incomprehensible passivity of the poor, their straddling between servility and violence, and the spiral of exploitation that starts at the very top of the government and winds all the way down to a country bumpkin from a lower caste, then to beggars even lower than him. Exploitation is like an endless ladder where everyone has contempt and abuse for anyone that happens to be on the rung below until you get to the utterly dispossessed. In this cycle of abuse from which there seems to be no escape, the only way out is to exploit someone else and to resort to crime.
Balram, the hero of this story, is as flawed as they come. A sweet and vivacious little boy, he’s handpicked to study in Delhi, but he is hampered by his own grandmother who puts him to work instead. His family works for the landlord of the village, a modern feudal lord that just extracts from his tenants and gives nothing back but abuse. But Balram is overqualified to be a slave in his village and soon he asks his grandma to lend him money to learn how to drive so he can work for the landlord and his entitled sons. The movie captures all the ways in which the poor are abused, condescended to, patronized, discriminated against, ignored, exploited, and treated like sub-humans. Balram’s explanation for the passivity of the poor is logical: they are like chickens in a coop, trapped by poverty, incapable of rebellion or escape. If you try it, the rich wipe out your family. It is basically slavery.
I have not read the novel but Bahrani lovingly presents the details that make the story so rich. The contrasts between the lives of the rich and the poor, the micro and macro aggressions from one rung to the next. The landlord has two sons, a brute called the Mongoose and Ashok, a more refined, US-educated, supposedly enlightened son who takes Balram under his wing and treats him a bit better, which is not saying much. That his education was paid by the back-breaking labor of an entire village of slaves, seems to elude him. His cowardice and spinelessness come across as even worse than the Mongoose’s heavy-handed offenses.
Despite the harsh subject matter, The White Tiger is hugely entertaining, directed with energy, panache, and a sharp sense both of humor and drama by Bahrani. It is a social satire that pulls no punches. This is no tale of the noble poor and their pure hearts. This is no poverty porn where the poor are ennobled beyond recognition so that the privileged can feel good about it.
Whatever was innocent in Balram’s heart is poisoned by his exploitation and humiliation. He signs up to be a driver but they use him to beat the dust out of carpets and give foot massages. The abuse goes from petty disrespect to a complete disregard for his rights and his personhood.
What are we to do with such a character? Balram is sweet, funny, wide-eyed, and innocent yet he is ruthless, conniving, and shrewd. He becomes ruthless while remaining cloyingly servile. Gourav moves in and out of these contradictions with utter charm. He even sings beautifully. He gets away with everything without a single false note. He makes the movie. He is in a different plane from the other actors, who are serviceable, except for Nalneesh Neel, who is remarkable as Vitiligo Lips, a salacious driver.
I frequently despair of Netflix and its predictable kitsch roulette, but its global impact is undeniable. Just how unlikely it is that people all over the world are falling in love with a character as local as quintessential New York wit Fran Lebowitz? Movies like The White Tiger, for which it would be hard to find a global audience, are now given huge exposure right into our living rooms. In this case, this is a good thing.