What does it take to taste freedom?
For most of his life, Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) has known nothing but to live in the shackles of the slums of India, with seemingly all facets of his life shackling him down to the pits of poverty and the unceasing cycle of slavery. When young Balram experiences a glint of hope for his fortitude in English, his ruthless grandmother forces him to work, thus resulting in him never having a proper education. As he witnesses his father die without any refuge and his brother get married off, Balram learns the reality of his situation: like a chicken trapped in a coop with nowhere to be, seemingly lifeless and has no motivation to even beg or cry to be let off. Ultimately, Balram starts seeking what he knows is the best solution for him to taste a bite of affluence, away from the dirt of his present—to serve a master.
Ramin Bahrani’s 2021 film The White Tiger tells the story of the lengths a man can do to break free and how it transforms a soul in the process.
The film tackles the class divide that is still predominant in India: how the “masters” get to own their servants/slaves, how the families of these servants are tracked down essentially to keep them from escaping, how poorly and unjustly they are treated, and how the upper class blindly benefits and prospers off them while the lower class do all the heavy labor. The Stork is the perfect example of this kind of master. We learn that his wealth is from the coal/mining industry that Balram’s family works at. We also meet Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), both fresh from the States, whose ideals and attitudes disparate from the traditional Indian. Balram thinks they are different—kinder, as they both present decency and respect to the servants because of their western influence. Balram then decides to dedicate his life to serving Ashok, even going as far as getting the main driver fired just to get close to him. If not obsession, admiration would be an apt description of his dedication to his master.
Throughout the film, we see glimpses of the enduring corruption, from the mere existence of slavery, the bribes of Ashok’s family to acquit their tax fraud, to the negligence of the police during Pinky’s hit and run in which she has killed a kid, to the presence of “The Great Socialist” who deems herself as one with the poor but feeds off of bribes from the rich. Therefore, who is the true villain of this story? Is it the barbarous masters? Is it the hundreds of years-old society which the cruel and rotten system has rooted itself in? Or is it the Balram himself, the cunning slave who has murdered his master in cold blood? The morality of poverty is foggy and pungent with fumes and dirt from the gluttony of the rich, the scraps in which the poor thrives off, and the rancid smell of those who blindly enable the rotten system. The evil does not exist in a single antagonist. Until this system ceases to exist, evil will continue to prevail amongst them.
Through Bahrani’s direction and the explosive performances of the cast, especially Gourav, the audience is given a nuanced view of Balram as he gives small glances of his present self, narrating the main focus of the film: the events which led him to become the person that he is now, how he turned himself into what he calls a “business entrepreneur” from being a “social entrepreneur”, and how his life changed upon meeting Ashok and Pinky.
Balram calls himself The White Tiger, which only comes once in a generation. He wants to be the one who will escape the coop and attain control of his life. He kills his master, finally breaking free from the chains of his slavery; until he becomes a master himself. He prides himself to be different from Stork and Ashok. He doesn’t treat the people who work for him as servants, rather he considers them as employees. But other than this, his ways are still reflective of malicious acts of the coop he once belonged in. Hence, do we consider him finally free? Or did we witness the death of a servant and the birth of just another slave driver?
The White Tiger, like its main character Balram, is imperfect, ambitious, satirical, and daring. This is not your stereotypical rags-to-riches story. It will make you uncomfortable and question its morality, but to support or denounce its protagonist is not the main intention of the film. It is to provoke a critical perception of the consequences of privilege, class, and the liberation of a soul from physical and personal slavery.
The White Tiger is available to stream on Netflix.