The White Tiger is based on a book (Aravind Adiga's Man Booker-winner) so let's begin with the literariness of the protagonist's language. He's called Balram (he's played as an adult by Adarsh Gourav), and he hails from Laxmangarh, which could be another name for Anyvillage, India. Of his family cramped in a single room, he says they slept with legs twisted over each other so as to resemble one creature, a millipede. Of the caste system (which he equates with class), he says, "These days there are only two castes: people with big bellies and people with small bellies." Of his strange countrymen, he says, "Open up our brown skulls and look inside with a penlight: you will find all these ideas half-formed, half-correct…" (Translate it to Hindi, and it becomes a smashing Salim-Javed line!) Even the names of a few characters sound literary, Rushdie-esque: The Stork, or The Great Socialist.
But only Balram speaks this way. Rather, he writes this way. All of what he says is contained in a letter addressed to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India. The director, Ramin Bahrani, has moved far away from the indie auteur who burst on the scene with fly-on-the-wall features like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. He's now a more flamboyant filmmaker, as we saw in his last theatrical feature, 99 Homes. (Like The White Tiger, it's a social-realist melodrama that pairs a have with a have-not.) Early on, we get a shot that takes in Balram meditating in a room with flamingo-themed wallpaper, and slowly, the camera zooms in so close to its subject that his face — slightly altered by perspective — fills the frame like a grotesque mask. But when it comes to Balram's letter, Bahrani doesn't replace it with a "cinematic" equivalent. He (wisely, I think) lets it remain the ironic distancing device it is: it alerts us that Balram is (at least partially) putting on an act with his carefully constructed writing. The earnest (and sometimes strained) literariness is his "I have arrived" statement.
The letter also opens up our brown skulls to a fact that Chetan Bhagat revealed so astonishingly: that English is no longer an "urban" accessory. There's a vast aspirational India out there, and the great hope trick of The White Tiger is that its most erudite-sounding character is from the rural part of the country, and he is telling us his story in his own words, and in a language he has made "his own", however stilted it may sound to us "urban" viewers. The premise contains another subversion, which arises from Balram's brother, Kishan. The call-back to the mythical siblings is no accident. Our stories and our festivals are so much about Krishna that Balram is usually reduced to an "underdog". But here, the culturally privileged Krishna (i.e. Kishan) is pushed to the background: he remains an undistinguished blur when compared to his sharply etched sibling. Clearly, it's time we heard Balram's story, the underdog's story.
The White Tiger is the story of Balram's journeys: first to the nation's capital (Delhi), and then to the nation's IT capital (Bengaluru). And like in all great literary journeys, there is, in the central character, a growing sense of awareness. (Given the constancy of the Buddha statuette in the visuals, one might even say enlightenment.) And that's the quality that sets the film apart from something like Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, which contained its commentary in a more straightforward format: on the surface, it was a genre piece, a thriller. (It's also a far better movie.) Here, on the other hand, is the story of an… anti-Buddha, if you will. Unlike Siddhartha, Balram was not born into riches, and he did not have to be exposed to the suffering outside in order to set out on a quest for enlightenment. His is a life of non-stop suffering, from birth, and the most touching aspect of the film is Balram's attempts to rid himself of his inherent Ramu kaka-ness.
You know Ramu kaka, of course: the character exemplified by AK Hangal in mainstream Hindi cinema, but also a character that existed long before the actor appeared on our screens. Ramu kaka is the faithful family servant, whose only visible traits are that he is faithful, that he "belongs" to the family (he has stayed with them for decades), and that he is a servant. Where does Ramu kaka come from? What was his childhood like? Was he ever in love? Did he like to read books whenever he was not serving the family faithfully, when he retired to his room after his chores? These were questions no one asked — not the characters surrounding him, and not the viewers, many of whom (I include myself) had eyes only for the people Ramu kaka was looking after, because they were the ones around whom the story revolved.
In The White Tiger, Ramu kaka reclaims the narrative. This is the story of his revenge. For a while, Balram is someone who'd grow up to be played in a movie by AK Hangal. "What is a servant without a master?" he asks. "The desire to be a servant had been bred into me," he confesses. In a heart-wrenching scene, Balram's eyes fill with tears when he realises that his "master" — someone who called him "the new India", someone who behaved like a new kind of Indian and said things like "don't call me sir, call me Ashok" — has betrayed him. This moment is all the more powerful because you think it's a turning point in the master-servant dynamic. You think Balram finally has the upper hand, and can blackmail his way ahead. But…
Adarsh Gourav has a wonderful face that mirrors both the cruelties done unto him and the cruelties inherent in him. (Balram is both Oliver Twist and The Artful Dodger.) And he reflects — beautifully — the push-pull nature of the Indian Lower Class, the conflict between wanting to rise above one's station and the generationally instilled notion that one should know one's place. More than once, I was reminded of Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967), where a white family is given a surprise/shock when their white daughter brings home a black boyfriend. The family's "Ramu kaki" — a black faithful family servant — appears more appalled than the girl's parents. When alone, she accuses him — a highly decorated doctor — as "one of those smooth-talkin', smart-ass niggers, just out for all you can get". She says, "I don't care to see a member of my own race getting above himself."
We often hear about internalised patriarchy. This is internalised slavery, and this is what Balram pushes so hard against. He has to conquer this before he can conquer the outside world, where the hierarchies are everywhere, not just between the "big-bellied" and the "small-bellied" castes. Take the scene where Balram approaches Ashok for work as a driver. He stands outside the gate, and the gatekeeper looks at him with contempt, as though Balram were somehow lesser/lower than him. Their belly sizes are probably the same, but there's a difference. The gatekeeper has made the leap to the other side of the gate. He is on the inside, now — the same side that has the huge mansion where Ashok lives with his family. And after Balram gets the job, he realises there's another hierarchy. He's the No.2 Driver. He gets to do the menial work. His senior, the No.1 Driver, gets to play badminton with the children of the house.
Like in 99 Homes, Bahrani directs with an eye on narrative propulsion rather than subtlety — but Balram's psychological arc is gripping, and the film is compulsively watchable. I admit I winced, at first, at what seemed like Exotic India tropes. Did we really need three shots of a buffalo in the middle of a road? Did we really need the contrast of an act of bribery with a statue of Gandhi? But then, this is the same thing Nargis Dutt accused Satyajit Ray of: "exporting our poverty to the West". It is what it is, and this is not just Bahrani's gaze but Balram's gaze as well. He does not think India is some sort of paradise. He mocks everything, including our gods. In a fantastically surreal moment, he squats in front of a defecating man, exposing his brown buttocks for all to see. This is who he is, who he is destined to be: a shitting man in a shit country, unless he can do something about it.
Unlike Hindi cinema, where the poor and the downtrodden are typically painted in noble and sympathetic shades, White Tiger gives us — besides Balram — a female political leader from an oppressed caste who's now become both powerful and corrupt. Apparently, there is no nice way to crawl out the hole destiny has tossed you in, and the biggest laugh in the film comes from its dig at the fairy-tale contrivances of Slumdog Millionaire. Balram says it's not possible to win a game show and get out of it. He gets a mirror-image in Ashok's wife, Pinky (a perfectly cast Priyanka Chopra Jonas), who was raised in the US in similar conditions but managed to get out of it. She urges him to do the same, and we see the enlightenment dawn on him. So far, the camera has been regarding him. Now, for the first time, he regards himself. He picks up a serving tray and looks at his face. This is his Bodhi-tree moment. "You were looking for the key for years but the door was always open." This is a line Balram may have imagined, but it's certainly one that sounds like it came from the Buddha.
Pinky is the film's conscience. She may be a bit of a flake (the way some ABCDs come off at first, until we get to know them better), but at least, she knows right from wrong. Ashok, on the other hand, is the film's representation of what India really is, and how far it is from the India Pinky wants it to be. He left the country when still young, and his values — at least initially — seem shaped by the progressiveness he's seen in the US. But after he returns (at first, it's a short trip), after banging his progressive head against the monolith that our country is, he returns to his roots. He becomes the man his father (Mahesh Manjrekar) is, his brother (Vijay Maurya) is. True, he may not turn out as bad. He may not ask a prospective employee about his caste and whether he is a Muslim. But if Balram says "the desire to be a servant had been bred into me," the desire to be a master has been bred into Ashok.
Rajkummar Rao is not at his finest (I never quite bought him as Ashok), but despite himself — and perhaps due to his awkwardness — he manages to put across the confused person that the character is. Even his English accent is a reflection of his in-between-ness. Some words sound Indian, others get the odd American accent. It's exactly like how Indians who move to the US speak. His fate is predestined. He is no match for the newly enlightened Balram, who wins in a stunning scene in the rain where he is finally "cleansed" of his past. Apart from the millipede that Balram's family is, several creatures are referenced in the film. Other drivers call Balram "dehati chooha", a country mouse. Balram compares his serving ilk to cooped-up chickens, and later, he finds himself in a place that's home to both mosquitoes and roaches. But finally, he is that rarest of jungle creatures, the white tiger that comes along once in a generation. This is not a story of hope. It's about how rare it is — in the jungle of India — to see a millipede, a mouse, a mosquito, a cockroach, a rooster turn into the apex predator.