The White Tiger, currently the most watched film on a major streaming platform in India, features a protagonist born at the bottom of the country’s social pyramid (not counting gender).
Adiga names Balram’s village Laxmangarh, and refers to Dhanbad and Gaya as the nearby towns, the places where men from the village go to seek work, or catch trains to cities further away: Calcutta, Delhi. But of course each time Balram speaks of the Darkness, the term conjures up something more than mere location. It encapsulates the desperate poverty that is the norm in a village like Laxmangarh, the entrenched hierarchy that makes sure that the backbreaking labour of men like Balram’s father feeds the bellies of men like Ashok’s father.
Ashok — whose car Balram drives, and whose life choices he judges every day, even as he also aspires to them. “Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste,” says Balram scathingly of his master, who does very little about his oft-stated desire to change the future of India. The America-returned son of Laxmangarh’s most exploitative landlord (nicknamed the Stork), Ashok is far too good for his own good. He has married his Indian-American girlfriend Pinky, who isn’t of his caste, and who might even be Christian — and his egalitarian ways do not sit well with his position atop the hierarchy. He is constantly trying to prevent Balram from opening doors for him, trying to make him sit next to him on a sofa, and generally experimenting with the radical idea of the servant’s humanity.
Two weeks ago in this space, I wrote about another film in which, too, a US-returned
Adiga articulated that strange intimacy well, and Bahrani excels in this section. In Pinky’s absence, Balram determines to “be a wife” to his master – which apparently involves not letting him drink, and keeping his spirits up. But then Ashok’s elder brother arrives to take charge of him, and brings rejection in his wake. Ashok goes from being grateful for Balram’s company to swatting him away. Suddenly the servant’s advice is too stupid, his attentions too cloying. A similar fluctuation happens with others, too; whenever an employer needs the servant, he is wooed and flattered, embraced, called a part of the family.
The grateful servant preens, at first. But this is intimacy conducted on one person’s terms. And so the servant, powerless though he is, slowly discovers the weapons of the weak. In
The White Tiger, Balram goes from being what the coarse-tongued caretaker of the building’s netherworld of a basement calls his master’s ‘faithful dog’, to a faithless cheat who realises he must take what he can get. The dehati chuha, the country mouse, learns the ways of the city. But even those petty ways – picking up other paying customers, invoicing fake repairs, siphoning off petrol — are a fraction of what would be needed to actually bring the servant anywhere near the level of the master.
And so intimacy is corroded by duplicitousness. “Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love? Or do we love them, behind a facade of loathing?” muses Balram. Adiga/Bahrani’s is a much darker vision of cross-class relationships than Rohena Gera’s. That’s the thing, though –
Sir imagines bridging India’s vast social gap with love,
The White Tiger with crime. For the vast majority of India, both options remain fantasies.