Having confessed in my last blog that I am not a film buff, I surprise myself as I sit down to scribble my thoughts on another.
The White Tiger, a 2021 film adapted from the book by Aravind Adiga is not for the faint hearted or something you could watch twice if you have even a vein of empathy for the poor and the underclass. The sheer scale of poverty and the cycle of injustice that seems to perpetuate makes your stomach churn with sadness. Why, you may ask, it’s only a film. It is but a sad reality for many thousands of folks of the underclass in the Indian subcontinent.
Balram Halwai, a bright young teenage village kid, played by Adarsh Gourav in his debut leading role plays a convincing part of a boy born into rural poverty. Balram’s ability to study and work himself out of this destitute state he is in, is snatched away by an unfortunate sequence of events. A seemingly benevolent village landlord nicknamed ‘the Stork’ offers Balram a scholarship to study in Delhi. The unexpected death of his father to TB, and the family’s debt owed to the same benefactor, Balram must forgo his plans to study and instead help his grandmother in her tea shop to pay off the debt.
The family’s existence as portrayed in the film is heart wrenching to watch. For someone who has witnessed poverty in my own country, to see it in the 21st century and in such magnitude makes you ask some serious questions on justice. It is a cycle of misfortune where the players have no escape.
The Stork and his family deal out the cards and one step out of line an entire family can get abused or even killed. A kind of feudal system which has a veneer of philanthropy but under-girded with greed and violence to a level that is incomprehensible. He acts as a saviour, full of promises of betterment to the poor unsuspecting souls, who get trapped in this ‘chicken coop’, circling endlessly for a morsel of food and air for their congested lungs.
Balram aspires to be a chauffeur for the Stork’s son, Ashok who has returned from the US to settle down in Delhi with this Indo-American wife Pinky played by Priyanka Chopra. Balram’s grandmother sponsors his driving lessons with the promise of sharing his salary with the family once he is employed.
His position as the second driver in the family gets him in the realms of carrying out other menial tasks around the mansion and grounds. A scene that stuck in my mind was how this overweight landlord gets this young boy to massage his legs and kicks him around at the slightest whim and fancy. This mistreatment does not go down well with the Western educated Ashok and particularly, his wife Pinky. When she tries to protect or speak against these brutal actions, she is faced with insulting and shaming comments made against her. This is a common trait by male relatives to keep women’s voices hushed. If a woman speaks up against injustice, her character is assassinated and her sense of judgement of the situation is snubbed, and she is made to face a lifetime of humiliation. Just because of who she is!
Ashok is seen to enjoy the fruits of his father’s abundant wealth. On returning from a celebratory outing for Pinky’s birthday, she persuades Balram to allow her to get behind the wheel. Driving after too much alcohol Pinky knocks down a street child who is killed. Ashok’s family gets Balram to sign a statement confessing his responsibility for the accident which was endorsed by his grandmother. The cunning way the coercion took place for this half suspecting young lad to sign his life away was masterful yet crude and ugly. This injustice unsettles Pinky who is silenced. Yet she did not have the courage to own up to her mistake due to preserving her husband’s family honour.
The young couple is smartly housed in a modern condo in Delhi and seem to treat Balram with some dignity compared to their elders. The drivers’ quarters which lie at the basement of this high-rise building is infested with rats and more dangerously with other workers who act as predators on the younger drivers like Balram, who still seems to have some innocence left from his village upbringing. His makeshift bedroom lined with old rags and netting and a throwaway mattress becomes his haven where he sits and sings his childhood songs to lull himself from the misery he is going through, yet grateful to be alive and be working.
Balram’s family in the village survive on the money that he sends periodically. Survival in this tribe also means entrusting the slightly older members to mind the younger. So, it was no surprise that Balram’s young nephew is sent to Delhi to join him to learn the trade of survival. Although daunted at the thought at the onset, this young chap who is barely an adult himself, takes the younger lad under his wings and takes care of him, sharing his makeshift drivers’ quarters.
Whenever the Stork and another elder visited Ashok and Pinky they continued to ill-treat Balram, kicking and punching him for no reason. Pinky intervenes again to put a stop to this vile behaviour and gets insulted and humiliated. All this becomes too much to bear on her conscience and Pinky walks out on Ashok and heads back to the US. This drives her husband to alcoholism.
Corruption is at every strata of society in this film, and indeed paralleled in real life. Ashok and Pinky’s Western mindset has no leverage in this hugely caste driven democracy. The way up is to line the pockets of the right political leader and misuse the services of the underclass.
One fatal day, Ashok withdraws a significant amount of cash from the bank to offer as a bribe to a politician and was driving off with Balram at the wheel. An unexpected turn of events happens, when Balram stops the vehicle in an isolated byway and attacks Ashok with a broken Whiskey bottle and leaves him to bleed to death by the roadside and runs away with the cash. He escapes to Bangalore with his nephew.
Now a fugitive from his own state, Balram uses the money to build a taxi business and treats his workers with respect and dignity. He is the White Tiger who masterminded his escape from poverty. He compensates for the mistakes made by the drivers and pays them a fair wage. He loses connection with his family as returning will only make him lose his family’s honour. But will they even be alive as the Stork will have taken his revenge and shot them all dead anyway……
Is it right for the poor to behave in this way to climb out of poverty? Can Balram pay for his sins by treating his employees justly? Are we all not in a chicken coup if not for the saving Grace of God? As for the Stork, is there a way out of his own chicken coop?