Arts and Entertainment

“The White Tiger”: A Rags-to-Riches Reality Check

Netflix’s “The White Tiger” skillfully explores India’s caste system and tells the success story that is far too often ignored.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Ismath Maksura

Growing up, many of us are surrounded by unrealistic rags-to-riches stories that aim to instill in us the all-American values of hard work, individualism, and self-sufficiency. However, the “American Dream” sold by these tales is seldom in line with reality. Netflix’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s award-winning novel “The White Tiger” explores a kind of success story rarely told in our culture.

When the audience first meets Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), he’s a promising young student. One day, a teacher tells him that he is a “white tiger,” a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. But Balram knows that isn’t likely. Comparing the caste system to a rooster coop, Balram narrates that every person knows their fate, yet doesn’t rebel, as they not only accept, but embrace their destiny.

Balram’s innocent charm lands him his dream job with a wealthy village owner known as “The Stork” (Mahesh Manjrekar), and he quickly wins the favor of his son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). Ashok was educated in the U.S. where he met his vivacious New York-raised wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). They reject the way others treat Balram and form a close friendship with him. However, when Ashok’s security is threatened, Balram quickly becomes the family’s scapegoat. Betrayed by his employers, Balram’s staunch loyalty erupts into rage, and this hatred for the rich paves the way for his success.

“The White Tiger” explores India’s caste system—and, more generally, class struggle—by depicting one man’s vicious rags-to-riches story. The film works to counteract the unrealistic narrative perpetuated by other success stories: the harder you work, the more success will come to you. Just as Balram says, “for the poor, there are only two ways to get to the top, crime or politics.” “The White Tiger” uses one story to highlight issues with capitalism, the caste system, economic mobility, wealth inequality, privilege, and more. Through this cuttingly critical narrative, the film achieves a kind of general applicability seen in similar nuanced and class-focused works like “Parasite” (2019) and “Knives Out” (2019).

The organization and narration of the film accomplish an almost intentional familiarity, which is necessary to establish the aforementioned sense of universality in such a societally specific story. The flashback-style narration of the film is quite elementary, but an experimental storytelling format would have risked leaving audiences without the historic and cultural context to fully understand its conflict. The writing helps bridge the gap between the complex subject matter and unfamiliar viewers. However, since the film is aimed at Western audiences, the narration can come off as patronizing at times. Regardless, the writing builds the characters—especially the main three—efficiently while advancing the story at a comfortable pace. The film is split into two halves: the heavy character development in the first half of the film enables the story in the second to progress more quickly without feeling rushed or incomplete. The writing and pacing of the film allow for the beautiful yet troubled world built in its introduction to easily surrender to building doom-and-gloom as the plot progresses.

The dichotomy between the more light-hearted and darker elements of “The White Tiger” is one of the most remarkable aspects of the film, and characteristic of its director and writer Ramin Bahrani. Bahrani consistently explores the torturous paradox that is the “American Dream,” delivering provocative messages with every one of his films. “The White Tiger” is a perfect fit for Bahrani, as it echoes the ideas he has been examining his whole career and adds a new dimension to his exploration of class struggle: further than the “what” and “why” behind poverty, Bahrani aims to redefine audiences’ perception of success. Importantly, Bahrani avoids the romanticization of poverty—a pitfall many filmmakers fall prey to.

In front of the cameras, one of the reasons “The White Tiger” works so well is because of Gourav’s phenomenal acting as Balram Halwai. Though it’s Gourav’s debut as a leading man, he does a wonderful job depicting Balram’s two-sided nature and his internal conflict throughout the film, caused by the contrast between his innocent servility and his hunger for success. As the movie continues, Balram’s willing, wide-eyed servitude gives way to a darker, more subversive narrative. By creating a powerful, yet easy-to-root-for character, “The White Tiger” is able to dive into the harsh truths of the caste system.

Rao’s performance as the Stork’s son introduces audiences to a modern view of the caste system. Ashok disapproves of the way Balram is treated, insisting that Balram not call him “sir” and think of him as a friend, not a master. However, Ashok is still accepting of his family’s corrupt practices and expects the quiet obedience of Balram that others do. Pinky, on the other hand, is sincerely kind to Balram. Raised and educated in America, Pinky fails to understand Balram’s desire to serve a family that treats him with no dignity. She not only rejects Balram’s servitude, but does so publicly, and gives Balram hope that he is destined for something greater. Rao and Chopra’s performances prove why passive support and silent rejection of these flawed institutions are not enough. While many people oppose the Indian caste system—or, more generally, rigid class divides—merely shaking your head at these establishments accomplishes nothing. While neither Ashok nor Pinky are exemplary agents of change, their characters and the repercussions of their actions prove why taking action is necessary to fight injustice.

Throughout the film, Balram talks about the two sides of India, claiming that “India is two countries in one, an India of light and an India of darkness.” “The White Tiger” accurately depicts this darkness, resulting in a powerful, grimy, and sometimes unnerving tale of class struggle. The film demonstrates that this “darkness” is not limited to one system in one country, rather it transcends borders and seeps into our everyday lives.