Netflix’s ‘The White Tiger’: A Lukewarm Translation of Rage On-screen
One can't help but be excited about Netflix's recent attempts at bringing to life and screen valuable works of South Asian fiction. Today's focus, The White Tiger, which premiered on Netflix on January 21, 2021, was a debut novel by the Indian-Australian writer and journalist Aravind Adiga, who won critical acclaim and the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for his critique of class and caste boundaries in India.
The book is narrated by Balram "Mannu'' Halwai, who makes his way from being a tea stall helper in his hometown village to a chauffeur and finally an entrepreneur in the Indian metropolis. Balram shares his dark and transfixing story through eight long emails written to the Premier of China after the news of his visit to India is made public. His voice delivers a scathing commentary on how systemic poverty, religion, and corrupt institutions serve as tools of oppression over the working classes—something that both the film and the book term with dry humour as the "rooster's coop" from which no worker even tries to escape. It takes a white tiger—a rare and precious beast—to break out of the system.
The film follows the same structure and stays true to the darkly satirical tone of Adiga's novel. As a two-hour-long parable dealing with heavy (yet not new) themes of corrupt politicians, income inequalities, and globalisation, director Ramin Bahrani's adaptation feels like a response to Danny Boyle's 2008 Slumdog Millionaire—"Don't think for a second there's a million rupee game show you can win to get out," Balram tells the audience at one point. On its own, the film is an entertaining piece of thriller carried through majorly by a good cast including Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Rajkumar Rao, and Mahesh Manjrekar playing Balram's employers. Actor Adarsh Gourav transfers the rage, thrill, and the consistent sinking feeling of loss that characterises Balram in Adiga's book. And the language—English with a smattering of Hindi when the scenes require it—definitely flows more smoothly than other recent adaptations like Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy.
However, while the film borrows generously from the text, it loses much more in censoring Balram's anger. "Here's a strange fact: murder a man, and you feel responsible for his life—possessive, even. You know more about him than his father and mother; they knew his fetus, but you know his corpse. Only you […] know why his body has to be pushed into the fire before its time, and why his toes curl up and fight for another hour on earth," Adiga wrote in his book. His work was graphic, earthy, and filled with a subversive humour that made Balram's pain and anger feel palpable on the page, and uncomfortable for some. But in the film, many of Balram's experiences with religion as a tool of oppression were skirted past, possibly because of fear of backlash, and several other details and incidents which helped build a deeper story in the book, were left out.
This leads one to question whether there is a new standardised version of book adaptations emerging—adaptations that seem to borrow, only on the surface, the idea of class commentary to cater to the globalised (but still western) gaze of the younger middle class, while leaving out the discomfort such discourses should invoke for this audience.
The characters of Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Ashok (Rajkumar Rao) are examples of such people, who despite being conscious of the systematic problems they live in and benefit from, refuse to truly challenge them when it requires engaging with their own guilt and complacency.
The irony is that a film such as The White Tiger, being mostly in English and despite an effective use of suspension of disbelief while switching to and from Hindi, will inevitably be watched by those same privileged, educated people. What does it say about us when we consume such narratives that are meant to represent the voices of those who are exploited, but in reality cater to the very classes who benefit from and survive because of the exploitation of the poor?
Ishrat Jahan is an early stage researcher who writes in her free time. Reach her at [email protected].