Arvind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, was just waiting to be adapted into a movie. And as expected, the movie, written and directed by Iranian-American filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani, was released on Netflix in January 2021.

For those who have read the book, it is really difficult to keep the book out of one’s mind while watching the movie. There are a lot of crucial omissions, and certain themes from the book have been watered down in the movie. But, the makers of the film have managed to retain the broader theme and storyline from Adiga’s novel.   

The novel was a genuine attempt from a liberal free-market perspective to narrate the transition of Indian society from feudalism to capitalism, from traditionalism to modernity, and the shift of Indian economy from primary to service sector. It celebrated the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by neoliberalisation of Indian economy through a classic rags-to-riches journey of the hero.

The male protagonist – who is a victim of poverty, caste, traditionalism, social evils and cultural mores – almost singlehandedly overthrows all of them and vindicates the promises of free-market capitalism. Bahrani’s movie has been able to capture this theme from the novel in the most comprehensive way, backed up by impressive performances from Adarsh Gourav, Rajkumar Rao and Priyanka Chopra.

Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) aka the ‘White Tiger’ is the archetype hero of an Indian neoliberal tale. He is born to a backward caste community, and is constantly reminded of his origins, to which he never pays any heed. He is a caste-blind youth who neither recognises his own caste nor of his so-called masters.

When Balram Halwai establishes his own company, he chooses the name of his former master and a seemingly caste-neutral surname. This shows that he even though he is not ready to allow his accident of birth to decide his fate, he has to succumb to the logic of caste, as for a caste-conscious society, everything is in the surname. 

Even though Balram wants to be a loyal servant to his master, his zeal to become a servant is powered by enthusiasm and entrepreneurial energy as he is not shy of “re-skilling” himself in order to remain useful to his master. Balram is the classic Homo economicus of utilitarian philosophy – an economic man who is optimally rational in pursuing subjectively defined goals.

Balram does not cares about the fate of his own family to pursue his ambition. Morality for him is a roadblock to success. Though he is not communal, he never shies away from using the communal consciousness prevalent in society if it can help him climb the ladder. He is not religious, but can act like he is. He is not a killer or a thief, but he can kill or steal and rationalise it if the need arises.

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Balram sees every human as having an ‘economic’ value and only an ‘economic’ value. He can calculate the worth of a dead child and can compensate for it. 

Balram is the human that classical Liberalism envisioned and neoliberalism aims for – a pure ‘individual’ powered by entrepreneurial energy who does not allow the structural inequality and oppression of society to come between him and success. The ‘rooster coop’, an analogy for the vicious cycle of poverty and oppression used in the movie as well as book, is not to be broken by collective action or political mobilisation, but through individual action turbo charged by ambitious energy. 

In the story, we also have Mr Ashok (Rajkumar Rao) and Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra), though both their roles have been trimmed down in the movie, as compared to the novel. Mr Ashok is yet another classical America-returned liberal Non Resident Indian (NRI) who wants to change India and is also is free from feudal thought. He recognises Balram as an equal human being with certain human rights.

He reminds his father, the stroke, that servants in America can sue their employers for mis-behaviour. Though Mr Ashok is bereft of feudal consciousness, he possess class consciousness and also class hatred, which only comes out when he is either frustrated or depressed. He does not think before taking out his anger over servants when he is feeling low or is frustrated or feels helpless. For him, in dire circumstances, ‘servants’ can become disposable, though not without a dint of remorse. That remorse is always there. 

A scene from ‘The White Tiger’ showing Mr Ashok (far right), his father (middle) and Balram (far left) | YouTube screenshot

Pinky Madam was born and brought up in America and she herself was part of a ‘rooster coop’, so she understands and empathises with Balram. Unlike her husband Mr Ashok, Pinky Madam takes no feudal bullshit from her in-laws. She is a fiercely independent woman who can take matters in her own hands.

Pinky Madam is also a pragmatist, but with a feeling of guilt and a ‘big heart’. She gives money to poor street kids, but when she accidentally kills a kid under the influence of alcohol, she accepts the ‘accident’ after initial mild protests and also remorsefully accepts the devious ploy of the Stork and the Mongoose to shift the blame on Balram.

But, since she feels ‘guilty’, she is looking for the family of the dead child to compensate and then decides to leave her husband and India after giving a token amount to Balram. Both Pinky Madam and Mr Ashok can be literally anyone from the rich, elite, influential rungs of Indian society who run over sleeping pedestrians and then try to save themselves or their loved ones, while retaining the ‘guilt’ deep inside their chests. 

The novel and the film have been deemed as dark, humorous takes on the reality of India. But what is the dark side? Is the depiction of caste-based oppression and fatalism (or the ‘rooster coop’) or corruption the dark take? Or is the ‘murder’ the dark side?

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These certainly cannot be called ‘dark’ sides of India, because for millions of Indians, these things are part of their everyday life. The acknowledgment of corruption, caste and patriarchal oppression, unsolved accidental murders, and bribing authorities can look like ‘dark’ side of India to only those who live in their shiny little worlds. 

The real ‘dark’ side, which both the novel and movie actually celebrate, is the faux promise of free market capitalism. Even if a person is ambitious and willing to break free from the chains of past, they have to engage in criminal acts and hurt others in order to climb up the food chain.

Capitalist ideologues even devised a concept known as ‘white collar’ crime to denote the criminal acts of upwardly mobile people. It is called white, and not ‘dark’ or ‘black’, or simply ‘crime’, because it is performed within the precepts of utilitarianism. The very thing which The White Tiger celebrates is the real ‘dark’ side of not only Indian society, but also of free-market economy. 

Balram is the human that classical Liberalism envisioned and neoliberalism aims for. | Still from ‘The White Tiger’ trailer, YouTube

Finally, several reviews have criticised the movie for Balram’s fancy English accent. This criticism is as deliberate as the topic of criticism and an outcome of biases of India’s liberal English literati. How can a poor person speak English, that too with accent?

In the movie, when Balram speaks something in front of Mr Ashok about computers and internet, the latter, who is the prototype of the liberal English literati, calls Balram and his ilk ‘semi-literate’. He speaks in English, but does not knows what he speaks. This aspiration of people from marginalised people to speak English as they try to move up the social ladder is often seen by the upper classes as a deliberate and poor attempt at imitation.

The upper classes are often seen pointing out and even making fun of grammatical errors, misspellings, typos or errors in the speech and writings of people from non-elite spaces. Balram wants to move upward, and that is exactly why he speaks in English in front of his ‘masters’ and never converses in English with his grandmother or brother. 

It can only be a co-incidence that the novel was published in 2008 when world experienced an unprecedented financial meltdown, while the movie came in 2021 when the world is experiencing yet another economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This celebration of neoliberalism amid continuing and aggravated economic crisis only exposes the farce of free market capitalism. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image: A still from the trailer of ‘The White Tiger’, YouTube.

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