The divide between rich and poor is a theme that's been explored in film and TV for decades. And sadly, we don't have to sign into a streaming service to witness the issue getting worse here in the UK, with COVID-19 widening the gap even further and footballers like Marcus Rashford having to step up to campaign for free school meals because the government can't be arsed to help kids in need. While the divide in the UK is one thing, the treatment of those living in poorer conditions in other parts of the world is decidedly worse. India, for example, where Netflix's new film The White Tiger is set, is a country that, according to CNN, has "almost 75% of its population still living in villages, leading a hardscrabble life of labor." For those people, whatever part of the village lottery they get born into, that's where they stay. Ignored by those in powerful positions, there never seems to be a way out and no chance of finding new opportunities for those born into poverty. Or can they? And if so, to what expense? That's the question The White Tiger sets out to answer as it follows someone from extreme poverty trying to rise through the ranks of the Indian class system.
Based on the award-winning book by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger is Netflix's latest book-to-screen adaptation and tells the story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a poor villager who finds himself working as a driver for a powerful upper-caste couple in India, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). Dissatisfied with his preordained social status and a life of serving others and furious at his treatment by his boss's family, the film follows Balram as he ambitiously and evilly rises through the ranks to eventually become a successful entrepreneur. India's class divide is not something to be sniffed at, and the treatment of the poor by those in power can be pretty shocking, until the roles are reversed.
Like the book, the film opens with Balram in 2010, penning a letter to the Chinese premier who is set to visit India to meet with entrepreneurs and learn about the country's economy. Using his own life to highlight the true state of India's economy, Balram then begins to recount his story, from being born into poverty and becoming a servant to Ashok to eventually becoming "a celebrated entrepreneur in Bangalore, the Silicone Valley of India."
Whilst Balram describes himself as a victim, unable to find an escape from the "chicken coop" that is India's poor society, you learn early on of his headstrong ambition. He becomes aware that Mr. Ashok and Pinky are moving back to India and immediately decides that he will become their driver and won't take no for an answer. Balram arrives at the wealthy couple's house, and despite initially being met with resistance, he finds common ground with another member of the family, both having grown up in the same village. For Indians, where you come from is possibly one of the most character-defining things, so much so that it's informed the caste system we still (unfortunately) ascribe to today. For traditional Indians, each village is known for a specific trade, and it's not unheard of to look down on someone because of the trade their family was originally known for.
As someone who grew up in the UK, the true explanation of the caste system has always evaded me. It's been said that it originated in the 19th century through the Hindu religion. My mum explains it as something to do with surnames and says that based on your last name, someone can decipher whereabouts in India you might be from and how highly your people rank. Traditionally, though, it's been explained through four levels: Bhramin (priests) at the top of the food chain, followed by Kshatryia (warriors), Viasya (merchants and landowners), and Sudra (commoners and peasants) at the bottom. For some, there is one even lower rank, for people considered "out of caste", who typically work as street sweepers and toilet cleaners. However you look at it, the caste system was a way to define people solely through societal class, without any regard for the type of people they are or what they have to offer, which understandably is quite damaging and the reason it was legally abolished in 1948. While the system itself was banned, the prejudices it left behind never disappeared and instead ended up trickling down through generations.
In The White Tiger, Balram is at the bottom of the food chain as a sweet-maker, so when he starts working for the wealthy couple, he's mistreated by Mr. Ashok and his family early on. It's subtle at first, starting with jokes at his intellect's expense, to which he's none the wiser. At one point, his master Ashok asks if he's heard of the internet, to which the people-pleasing Balram responds, "No, sir, but I could drive to the market right now, sir, and get as many as you want," further evidencing his naivety. But it's not one-sided. We're used to people like Balram being the victim in these stories, and while there's an element of that, this story is all about the food chain. In this particular exposé of India's upper class, it's made abundantly clear that despite the already-existing hierarchy, one thing ranks lower than low, and that is being a Muslim, a prejudice that unfortunately still exists in India today. Balram's almost-master needs to confirm that he's not Muslim before granting him the opportunity to be their driver, and it's this slight advantage — with Balram being a Hindu — that leads him to his first taste of higher ranking.
Balram realises the family's other driver of 20 years is Muslim, and he decides it's his duty to make it known. This is where the tone of the film changes, and it becomes much less about Balram being the victim and more about how he plans to change his fate. One drunken night puts everything into perspective for Balram when a child is killed in a drunk driving accident and he's asked by his master to take the blame. The immediate disregard for his life and the lack of consequences for the higher class is infuriating to watch because it's so blatant.
Slowly but surely, through the remainder of the film, Balram starts to find ways to make his own living through deceit. On one hand, you admire his drive and you're happy he's finally starting to see his worth. On the other, you question those feelings because his success comes from lying and stealing. The question of morality goes into overdrive when the story comes to a close, when Balram murders his master Ashok before starting his own taxi company with all the money he's taken from his former master. It's a vicious cycle of mistreatment, and it takes me back to scenes from Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, where you've been witness to the struggle from the very beginning and did want the family to succeed at first, but you're left unsure as to whether or not this was the way to do it.
The White Tiger shows us the dark reality of living below the poverty line in India and the repercussions of a caste system that was abolished but never really forgotten. In this story, there is a way out, but it comes with a price. For Balram, the only way to break free from poverty is to step on everyone around him in the process, taking the idea of biting the hand that feeds him much further than he anticipated. The film doesn't really offer a resolution, especially since his success is achieved by such brutal means. But perhaps a story like this isn't meant to give us a happy ending. It forces us to look deeper into things like morality, the idea of success, and the perils of climbing the social ladder. Without people like Balram trying to break away, it makes us question, would there be any reason to change a system if nobody believed it was broken in the first place?