The White Tiger Explores the Struggle to Escape Poverty in India

Image Courtesy of Netflix 

Based on a novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, Netflix's The White Tiger is a wonderful drama about class and caste in India, and the forces that keep people impoverished while so much wealth is created around them. 

In a similar vein with 2020's best picture winner Parasite, Adiga's book turned film tells a different story about trying to escape poverty, the pressures that keep people poor, and the relationship between servants and the rich they serve. The film explores how class and caste conspire to keep you in your place, and the cost of even attempting to free yourself from that cycle. 

The film follows Balram (Adarsh Gourav) from the time he was a young boy all the way through adulthood, as he tells his story of escaping the slums he was born in. The movie begins with Balram as a successful entrepreneur, telling his story in an email to a Chinese diplomate who is visiting India in search of rising stars to enter into ventures with Chinese businesses. The film is narrated throughout by older Balram, who explains some of his decisions and what he is thinking while making those decisions. 

Although narration in most films is a pet peeve of mine--film is a visual medium, so show don't tell--Balram's explanations provide some of the key metaphors in the film that may not have been clear otherwise. The framing of the film also creates intrigue from the beginning--how did Balram make it out? What business is he in? And why is he wanted for murder? 

Although intelligent, Balram is forced out of school when he is young because the family business needs workers, a deep disappointment to him. His fortunes change when he grows up and convinces his family to allow him to become their landlord's driver to earn more money for the family. 

Image Courtesy of Netflix 

Their landlord, The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), is set up as the main antagonist of the film. He is bleeding the village dry with high rents, little maintenance on his properties, and hostile attitude toward his tenants. He is also set up as Balram's only chance to escape poverty. Setting The Stork up as both the reason for Balram's poverty and the only chance Balram has to escape his condition makes for a compelling character dynamic. Balram is someone who lives to serve the wealthy, and who embraces that role whole heartedly, seeing very little way out of his current situation. Even after Balram starts on as a driver, The Stork still finds a way to leverage Balram's family, life, and freedom to prevent him from getting any ideas about making it out. 

This brings us to the metaphor of the rooster coop. Roosters watch from their coops as their neighbors are pulled out and killed. They know they will be next, but they still stay in the cage even if they see a way out. Balram compares this to how the Indian family and caste structures keep Indians poor. If someone tries the escape their condition, the wealthy will exact retribution on their family, thus ensuring that no idea of material betterment takes root in their minds. 

Balram's future self is able to explain this metaphor, while we see Balram still stuck inside the rooster coop passively accepting his fate as simply the nature of the world. Despite devoting himself as a servant to his masters, they continue to abuse him, create more blackmail, and force him to betray his conscious time and time again. Balram's arc lies in him finally seeing the rooster coop for what it is, and whether or not he will take the next opportunity to escape presented to him. 

This film does an excellent job telling this story beyond a strong message and good metaphors. The strong cast of main and supporting characters, including Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), The Stork's son who returned from study abroad in America and his fiancĂ©e Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra). These additional main characters along with the longer list of supporting cast bring what may have been a dry metaphor about class into a fleshed out film. This film's success took it to number one on Netflix when it opened, and should place it at number one on your watch list. 

-Patrick Bernas