I still feel dazed after watching The White Tiger a few nights ago, and nothing should have surprised me. I knew for a start that it wasn’t about tigers – I’d read the book.
I read the book first, many years ago, not long after it won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, and I remember the impression it made on me. I loved it, and was shaken by it. Last week I met The White Tiger again on Netflix, where it had been released in January this year. It leapt out at me from the screen exactly as I’d imagined it.
The tale follows a servant, Balram Halwai, who is trapped by personal circumstances that mirror, and result from, the corruption that surrounds his family on all levels.
Balram is played by Adarsh Gourav who has never been cast in such a high profile lead before, and he fits it like a key in a lock. He does not dominate the screen but is always there, the diffident servant, able to get close to others and to observe them without being noticed. He takes us inside the lives that surround him, and shows us his own hope, subservience, desperation and finally, when faced with dismissal, the ruthless fury he uses to free himself, and to force his way through to the top.
The director of the film is American-Iranian, Ramin Bahrani. His great friendship with the author goes back a long way. In fact Aravind Adiga dedicated the book – The White Tiger – to him. This, perhaps, explains the understanding that is clearly there between the film and the text. In an interview I saw, where Bahrani was questioned by Oliver Stone, he said that his own father had been raised in a village, in similar circumstances to those shown in The White Tiger. These connections must be why the “rooster coop” felt so real to me, and meant that I could believe what erupted out of the inequality and corruption.
The film also takes a look at modern American sensitivities to the master/servant relationship, and suggests, through Balram observing his master, that the comfortable, guilt-racked white man is a ‘lamb’. This idea then builds towards the thought that the road may now be open for “the yellow man and the brown man”. Or is it only the rare – “the creature that gets born only once every generation” – that truly breaks free?
It certainly made me think, and so did the final bone that The White Tiger gave me to chew on:
“For the poor there are only two ways to get to the top – crime or politics. Is it like that in your country too?”
I loved the film – the cast, the pace, and how true it is to the book. I hope you’ll get a chance to see it. I should also add that I know little about India.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2021