- Ramin Bahrani
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 5 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
The field of the poor may yield much food,
but it is swept away through injustice.
Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.
Writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s adaption of his long-time friend Aravind Adiga’s best-selling novel provides a sardonic view of the 1% as viewed by those at the bottom. It bears some similarities to the South Korean 2019 Oscar winner Parasite, except that it is set in India, where the ancient caste system still keeps the rich and the poor apart, despite Gandhi’s valiant efforts to destroy the system. There is more humor in the Indian film, and so until midway into it, I thought it might be as uplifting as Slumdog Millionaire. Was I ever wrong, though it is definitely related to that fairy tale of a film! Some even call it an anti-Slum Dog movie.
Bahrani focuses upon Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a low caste villager who has achieved great wealth as an entrepeuer. As he watches a newscast about Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s upcoming visiting to India, he is inspired to contact him about a business deal. Telling his rags to riches story by way of introduction, his e-mail letter becomes the narrative for the film, allowing him to make wry comments about life and Indian society. It’s a story of self-help, but as we will see, contains elements not found in any of Horatio Alger’s books, treachery and murder. Enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography of Paolo Carnera who brings out the colors of the teeming streets, it also reveals the drabness of village poverty and the grubby basement apartments of those who serve the wealthy in the lavish apartments above them. And the witty script, full of droll observations, is a delight to those with sensitive and humorous minds. I could not help but smile at Balram’s straddling the fence as to the existence of God when he describes three of the major religions of India, Islam (“One God”); Christianity (“Three gods”); and Hinduism (“64 million “) and says that he will play both sides of the fence.
In flashback squences we see Balram as a boy in the drab village where his father labored on land owned by the haughty landlord known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). During his periodic visits to the village the Stork demands one third of a tennants’ proceeds, leaving very little for the families to eke out a living. The boy does so well in school that he is promised a scholarship, but when his father becomes sick with tuberculosis and dies, his stern grandmother forces him to work full time and turn over his wages to her for the upkeep of the large family. One day during the Stork’s visit to collect his rent Balram sees and is drawn to the landlord’s American educated son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). Hearing that the family is looking for a second driver, Balram talks Grandmother into bankrolling the fee for driver education, and, despite the opposition of theStork’s head driver, manages to get hired on as driver for Ashoka.
The son has just finished his university education in America where he had met and married his Indian, but born in America, wife Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). They had married against his family’s wishes, and so Ashok has persuaded Pinky to accompany him back to his home so he can mend fences. She wants this to be a temporary visit, a desire that will bring them into conflict later. Along with his wife, Ashok has acquired some of America’s liberal values, so they treat their new servant far better than the Stork or his other son the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). And yet they do not seem to mind that the small room assigned him is deplorable. Also, as we come to see, they are totally unconscious of how condescending they are to him.
Balram himself is so embedded with thousands of years of fawning obsequiousness that he resists their requests that he not call Ashok “Master” or address him as “Sir.” Like some of the smarter slaves in ante-Bellum America, Balram has learned how to flatter and maneuver his “betters” to make his life a little better. There is a hint of what is to come late in the film when Balram orchestrates the firing of his rival, the No. 1 Driver. The corruption of the family and society is revealed by the large sums of money that Ashok is dispatched to give to the Great Socialist (Swaroop Sampat), the woman governor of their state and later in Delhi even to the President. It is the same red bag that will tempt Balram to do the unthinkable and lift him out of poverty.
Balram learns how fragile his relationship is with his supposed benefactor when on the night of Pinky’s birthday they dress him up in a fake Maharaja’s suit to chauffeur them about Delhi. After the couple’s bout of eating and drinking, the inebriated Pinky demands to drive. Relegated to the backseat, Balram watches as she narrowly misses a water buffalo and other cars. He sees a young pedestrian, but too late to warn his mistress. There is an audible thump. The panicked couple are torn between their shock and desire to call the police, but Balram, retaining his calm, tells them they must go on. He will take care of matters. Back at the apartment’s garage Balram cleans off the blood and a piece of the victim’s garment from the front bumper. The next day Ashok mutely watches the Stork and his lawyer at first politely thank their servant but then insist that he sign a document stating that he was the driver of the vehicle and was therefore to blame. The Mongoose tells him they will keep the document. Ashok is in effect their slave, bound to them for life.
As Balram comes to realize how he has been used and maneuvered, his long suppressed resentment begins to surface. I came to see this as the story of an oppressed person coming to an awareness—conscientization, as Liberation theologians called it. In his narration Balram uses two metaphors for himself. The first is the film’s title, and at one point when he takes a boy to the zoo, we see a real white tiger. It is “the rarest of animals that comes along only once in a generation.” The other metaphor describes the situation into which he was born, the rooster coop. He says of its feathered occupants, “They can see and smell the blood; they know they are next, and yet they don’t rebel.” At one point we see a coop, the keeper taking a bird out of the cage, killing it, and quickly and deftly chopping it up for consumption. In a sly wink at the fairy tale of a movie Slumdog Millionaire, Balram says, “Don’t think there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of it.” How he decides to escape from the coop turns this satire into an even darker comedy. Balram is resorts to ruthless brute force rather than quiz-show knowledge.
Balram in his rebellion is totally emancipated from the previous servile manner so apparent in the childhood and early servant sequences (set in 2000 and 2007, respectively). In 2009, the time of his e-mail narration, he is the well-dressed and groomed entrepreneur in control of a fleet of cabs that service Bangalore’s airport. He writes to China’s premier, “America is so yesterday; India and China are so tomorrow.” At this point Ramin Bahrani’s film is a morality tale about the loss of a man’s soul, which is how many people of faith might see it. He has indeed become so intent on his own rise in the world that he is willing to sacrifice the well being of his family back in the village. This is the ultimate embracing of the Western belief in individualistic, atomistic existence, and a rejection of India’s ancient communal values. Don’t try to tell him “No man is an island alone…”!
And yet the film’s coda would seem to belie the conclusion that Balram has completely sold his soul in gaining, not the whole, but a substantial portion of, the world. Balram now has a fleet of taxis driven by a corps of drivers whom he pays well. Notice what he does for the driver when one of them hits a young pedestrian, perhaps recalling his own experience some years back in Delhi. Also, mark what he does when he visits with the victim’s family! We might cynically say that what he does is done to enhance his own standing and remove any chance of the grieving family suing him, but I like to think there is still a spark of decency in him.
This film, like Crazy Rich Asians, satirizes the wealthy, but is far more scornful of them. It does not romanticize the poor– Balram is ruthless and devious long before he resorts to violence to climb out of the pit of poverty—remember how he became Driver No. 1? In this respect the filmmaker’s viewpoint is similar to the authors of Proverbs or Eccesiastes.
Balram is like the shrewd man who buys the field without revealing that he has found a buried treasure in it, or the cheating steward who makes deals with his master’s debtors that will be costly for the master but beneficial to himself when he is fired. (See, respectively, Matthew 13:44-46 and Luke 16:1-13.)
In the old days when every Hollywood script was subject to the Hayes Code, the world was depicted as much simpler. There were the Good Guys with totally good hearts and Bad Guys with evil hearts—and, of course, the Bad Guys are punished for their misdeeds. “Crime does not pay” was the motto of the day. Balram, as the White Tiger, is more complicated, one of his observations being that there is only one way out of poverty for the poor man, ”either crime or politics.” (Do you remember the name he gives to his cab company?) But in the world of the rich and powerful is Balram’s white tiger so rare? Maybe instead of his being a rarity, like the pale coated carnivore, Balram should be seen as the bold rooster who does indeed smell the blood and does what is necessary to save his head.
Six years ago in his insightful film 99 Homes Ramin Bahrani spotlighted the plight of the large group of Americans who lost their homes due to the Bush recession. In it the home loser for a while joins with a profiteer turning others out of their homes, people like himself, until at last he can stand it no longer and rebels. Balram also rebels, but his rebellion is far darker. We are left to ponder whether he ever can atone for his violent deed, no matter how many acts of generosity and kindness he performs. Indeed, in his last cynical address to his employees, he comes to the camera and breaks the 4th wall when he tells us, “I’ve switched sides.”
I was intrigued by the frequent appearance of New Dehi’s Dandi March Statue, the famous memorial in which we see Gandhi leading a procession to the Indian Ocean’s Dandi Beach. Commemorating Gandhi’s most famous campaign of civil disobedience known as “The Salt March to the Sea,” the monument is the first image we see as the film opens. We are shown close-ups of portions of the figures in the group of Salt Marchers, and then the whole entourage, with Gandhi leading the way. The van speeds by it, Balram in the back seat while his drunken mistress Pinky drives and her laughing husband sits beside her. The second time, Balram is driving the Stork and sons around New Delhi to give out bribes to government officials, one of them holding the red bag filled with money. We see Gandhi as we hear Balram say “bribe.” What a contrast between the corruption-hating Mahatma and this greedy family! The third time we see Gandhi is a longer replay of the opening sequence. Ashok and Pinky have been out celebrating her birthday, and the half-drunk Pinky insists on driving. We see the ensemble of Gandhi and his followers from a different perspective as their van makes a right turn. A moment later Balram tries to warn her about a girl crossing the street, but it is too late, as we can discern by the loud thump. What a contrast between the leader who saw God as Truth, and what the three of them decide to do that night! What a discerning use of this marvelous large memorial to make his point in a challenging morality tale.
This is a film that transports us to an exotic land where the gap between the poor and the rich is even greater than in America. Often we see rag-dressed people camping out in the streets. There is a brief scene of a little girl selling statues of the Buddha tapping on the van’s window and pleading that she is hungry. We will not approve of his methods, but we can certainly understand Balram’s wanting to break his chains of poverty. This is a universal theme. And he makes a statement that invites us to reflect on the morality of capitalism in general, and not just in his country: “The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.”
This review will be in the February issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.