Perhaps the most profound scene in White Tiger (2021) is of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) – the ‘entrepreneur’, the survivor of the ‘rooster coop’ that is indentured servitude in India – setting his arrest warrant aflame. It serves as both exposition and a forceful reminder that Balram believes in one unequivocal truth: that the only way is up, and that he must continue to do what needs to be done to get there. What outwardly seems like a dramatised portrayal of Indian neo-feudalism, corruption and the impacts of increasing globalisation on an “underdeveloped” nation is, strikingly, also a story of the spoils of a certain kind of brutal entrepreneurialism. The Priyanka-Chopra-Jonas-produced movie is a dark ‘rags to riches’ dramedy that viewers are familiar – and perhaps a little too comfortable – with.
Based on Aravind Adiga’s book by the same name, White Tiger is a story about a scrappy underdog who uses his smarts to beat all the odds to come out on the other side, bigger and better. That last part, “bigger and better”, is key – not only to the depiction of Balram’s journey, but also to the narrative the movie attempts to spin about individual prowess.
Driven by the desire to leave his village behind, Balram’s singular focus is to become an indispensable resource to the powerful, land-owning Shah family. Driving for this family is a ticket to somewhere that isn’t the lot Balram was ungraciously handed in life. We watch as he tries to do everything he can to prove himself to employers that see him as nothing but an exploitable convenience – not an entirely incorrect characterisation of how most Indian families understand their household help. But an honest come-up story doesn’t make for good TV, and definitely doesn’t sell the international story of India’s “dark underbelly”. So, we curiously follow, and (are persuaded to) forgive, his ruthless and calculated attempts at getting ahead.
One of these attempts entails Balram threatening to reveal the Muslim identity of the Shah family’s #1 driver if he doesn’t resign, letting Balram move up in his place. This, in addition to when Balram surely sacrifices his entire family when he kills his young master (who, fairly, was willing to throw Balram under the bus for a crime he didn’t commit), makes this writer wonder what we are willing to forgive, turn away from or think justified in the path to success and greater status. Which is not to say that it wasn’t particularly delightful to watch Balram literally stab Ashok Shah (Rajkummar Rao) in the back; that this doesn’t happen as often is perhaps testament to what Balram/Adiga had to say about the ‘rooster coop’ and the violent means and lies we use to keep people in there. It is to say, however, that as much as we are allowed to make up our minds about Balram’s actions, we are also force-fed the narrative that “making it” in the “Third World” comes with undeniable, human collateral damage – all ultimately necessary and worthwhile.
Reveling in Balram’s success leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, especially considering he sacrificed people just like himself in order to accumulate wealth and power. Whether intentionally or not, it’s a story that inevitably celebrates using the master’s own tools and tactics to make one’s own version of the master’s house. It’s not an idea novel to White Tiger; this undergirds the unglamorous but glorified rat-race for basic security and happiness within capitalist society. White Tiger merely does a really good job of reiterating that this is not only the only thing to do, but also the reasonable thing to do if you are poor and possess even a modicum of intellect. It begs us to reckon with multiple questions: what kind of ambitions are “white tigers” allowed to have, especially those from low-income backgrounds? How much does our being “riveted” by the singular pursuit of a certain kind of financial ambition limit the imagination of what anyone, let alone a “white tiger”, can aspire to? What are we willing to forgive or, worse, accept unquestioningly in realising these ambitions? And how do the stories we champion about singular greatness and success impede our ability to answer any of the above?
White Tiger attempts to sell the story that cut-throat entrepreneurialism is the key to getting out of the rooster-coop, when in reality, it further solidifies the material bounds of the coop itself. Stories like this, both on and off screen, get us to focus on the little chicken that dared, and blur out the chickens rotting in a cage with almost no way out. They take the existence of the coop for granted, and often choose not to interrogate how our current socio-economic system both encourages and creates opportunities for more like it to be continually made. The underlying assumption then, both in life and celluloid, is that the smartest chicken (or tiger) knows the coop is here to stay and does all they can to break free and make something of themselves. Anything outside of that is not just uninspiring, but nonsensical.
The egregious analogy would also have us believe that being stuck inside the coop is due to a “lack of rebellion”, chalked down to lethargy and an unthinking “trustworthiness”. It obviously didn’t strike Balram/Adiga that it might have something to do with the dearth of real opportunity and the material, often fatal consequences that come with trying to break free and organising others to do the same. In this almost glamorous way, we’re made to dismiss this basic truth and become enamoured by the ‘rags to riches’ part of the story. It’s the perfect set up to finally sell us on all the ways the Indian entrepreneur has to forge ahead. Unlike the story’s own yin-yang-esque characterisation of the Indian entrepreneur as “straight and crooked… sly and sincere,” it seems as though there really is only one way to be, to succeed. White Tiger is able to convince audiences of this, only because of its not-entirely-inaccurate appraisal of all the forces stacked against the little entrepreneur who could.
We’ve come to enjoy stories like this as an enlightened, privileged audience too. We not only root for him, but feel vindicated when the little guy tricks the man on top. It doesn’t strike us at all that we might actually be the person he’s trying to take down. Stories like White Tiger, in its misplaced sincerity, keep that dissonance alive a little longer. That’s just par for the course with stories about climbing out of the trenches of poverty, that are written by people who have little to no idea what that would actually entail. Case in point: the material influence of caste – a major, if not primary, factor in the maintenance of so many people in poverty in India – is reduced to a throwaway joke about men with “big bellies” and “small bellies”. Perhaps, we must give Chopra-Jonas and Adiga the benefit of the doubt and accept that the spectre of caste is assumed. Regardless, it definitely isn’t alluded to thoughtfully or intelligently. That Adiga himself was “impressed” by the intelligence of the poor people he spoke to goes to show that there’s an absolutely abysmal understanding of the source material itself; any story that then attempts to both entertain and inform is bound to fall into the trap of romanticisation, condescension and plain, old inaccuracy.
It’s not that we shouldn’t make movies like this at all. White Tiger (2021) is, cinematically, quite an enjoyable piece of work. It’s that we should interrogate the formula of the stories we feel the need to put out there about poverty and overcoming adversity in the Global South specifically. Refusing to question the myths we want to be reality, or taking at face-value the sensational narratives we propagate and consume, has real impact on how we perceive in real life the things we watch on-screen. There was seemingly no attempt to do either with White Tiger (2021). What could have been an extremely self-aware movie inevitably becomes one of the tired many we will continue to see about how cunning, grit and the inclination to self-serving entrepreneurialism is what gets you past the butcher waiting at the latch.