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This weekend we’re watching: The servant’s rage

This weekend we’re watching: The servant’s rage
THE WHITE TIGER - Adarsh Gourav (Balram); Rajkummar Rao (Ashok) in THE WHITE TIGER. Cr. TEJINDER SINGH/NETFLIX © 2020

White Tiger sardonically chronicles the rage and rise of an Indian servant in a culture which would render him worthless and takes an irreverent quick-jab at the Western caricature of India.

Hollywood has tended to paint India as a colourful exotic locale shrouded in mystery, mysticism and the smog of poverty. Its bustling, chaotic street markets, packed with poor merchants and mischievous kids, are the perfect setting for American spies to stage a reckless chase on motorbikes; and no doubt India’s innumerable temples were created for the sole purpose of helping American women like Julia Roberts to find themselves spiritually.

Many of the internationally successful movies set in India were adapted from books which were written in English to appeal to a global audience, so their treatment of India is simplified to fit the mould of what a global audience expects (or wants) to see. Typically they focus on what is disparagingly referred to in the industry as “poverty porn” and romanticise India as a spiritual hub, othering local people as if they were devout munchkins in the Land of Oz.

The new Netflix film White Tiger, based on the award-winning 2008 book by Aravind Adiga, does a pretty good job of avoiding such stereotypical depiction of these subjects, and takes an irreverent quick-jab at the Western caricature of India.

White Tiger

Director Ramin Bahrani and executive producer Priyanka Chopra Jonas lead a predominantly Indian cast in a rags-to-riches underdog story exploring the mechanisms of control employed by the wealthy to keep their servants subdued.

We meet Balram Halwai at the end of his story, as a celebrated entrepreneur in Bangalore, with slicked-back hair and a pruned moustache. Just as in the book, he is writing a letter to the (now former) Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is visiting India. The format seems forced, without the context provided in the book, but the narration, which for the most part is copy-pasted straight from the novel, provides the most compelling quotes in the film.

“The future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man, now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself, through buggery, cellphone usage and drug abuse. I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about India, by telling you the story of my life.”

It’s a story told with equal parts pride and shame.

Following this letter, the film jumps back and forth in time between Balram the cocky capitalist tycoon, and a younger Balram whose most ambitious dream is to serve a rich master.

As a child with a bright mind, he was forced to spend his days smashing coal with a hammer rather than pursue an education. As an industrious young man he spends his days slaving away in the family teashop.

Born in the poor rural town of Laxmangarh, he jokes that the cows are the best-fed and most important members of his big traditional family. His father is a casualty of tuberculosis, his brother is a casualty of arranged marriage, and his sly grandmother is a manipulative matriarch who siphons all the family’s money.

Adarsh Gourav ​as ​Balram​, ​Priyanka Chopra ​as ​Pinky Madam ​in WHITE TIGER​. Cr. ​SINGH TEJINDER​/NETFLIX ​© ​2020

Adarsh Gourav ​as ​Balram​ ​in THE WHITE TIGER​. Cr. Tejinder Singh Khamkha​/NETFLIX ​© ​2021

​Adarsh Gourav ​as ​Balram​, ​Priyanka Chopra ​as ​Pinky Madam ​in WHITE TIGER​. Cr. ​SINGH TEJINDER​/NETFLIX ​© ​2020

Then there’s “the Stork”, the corrupt landlord who rules Laxmangarh and extorts its people with the help of his elder son, “the Mongoose”, a dangerous man who takes pleasure in his power over others. When Balram overhears that the Stork is in need of a second driver for his returned younger son Ashok (who, having travelled extensively in America, is more progressive than his father and brother, and later dubbed “the Lamb”) Balram uses cunning wit to squirm into the family’s service.

Ramin Bahrani’s films focus on underdogs and outcasts, and the hurdles they are forced to jump to pursue their “equal opportunity” in society. This is not Slumdog Millionaire – no magical karmic elevator is going to propel you out of squalor. There is a running analogy in White Tiger for why it’s so hard for a man to win his freedom in India – the rooster coop.

“They can see and smell the blood. They know they are next, yet they don’t rebel, they don’t try to get out of the coop. Servants here have been raised to behave the same way. The furniture on his back is worth at least two times his salary, and yet he will faithfully pedal the money back to his boss, without ever touching a single rupee. I was trapped in the rooster coop, and don’t believe for a second there’s a million-dollar game show you can win to get out of it.”

The base on which the rooster coop stands is India’s caste system, which has hammered subservience into the poor since ancient times. “In the old days, when India was the richest nation on Earth, there were 1,000 castes and destinies, these days, there are just two castes, men with big bellies and men with small bellies, and there are only two destinies – eat, or get eaten up.”

For good measure, there’s also the threat of violence towards the family of any servant accused of theft.

Balram is forced to toil in the muck at the feet of the Stork’s family, mistreated and dehumanised, and when he is bullied into taking the fall for their crimes in the ultimate expression of their privilege, his subservience begins to wane.

“Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love, or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?”

As Balram becomes more aware of the rooster coop, the sardonic tone of the film gives way to a building fury hiding behind his snide humour. His social climbing becomes more and more rabid, calcifying his gentle heart as he is corrupted by hatred for his masters and the shackles of his servitude, a transformation performed potently by Adarsh Gourav. He becomes more isolated and disillusioned, coming to resent his family, which is itself a kind of rooster coop. Though the story begins at the end, it ends far more cynically than it begins.

The master-servant relationship explored in White Tiger is as relevant in South Africa as it is anywhere else, and its suspenseful depiction of the servants’ rage and unlikely rise amounts to more than a fanciful underdog story. It’s a sombre account of what it takes to rise out of poverty in the rooster coop of modern democracy. DM/ML

White Tiger is available for screening in South Africa on Netflix.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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