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The White Tiger Is a Window Into India’s Class Society

Movies about class and inequality are back in the mainstream. Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger is a powerful interrogation of the injustices of class and caste society.

(Netflix)

The image of the culture industry as a production line of mindless diversions, a pliant tool at the hands of deft upper-class manipulators to pacify audiences and fence them in the great rooster coop of class society, has always been a one-dimensional portrayal of contemporary mass culture. “To be entertained,” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer stated in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “is to be in agreement.” Elsewhere, Adorno wrote to Walter Benjamin that “the laughter of the cinema audience,” in a way which allows for no distinctions between different kinds of laughter, movies, or audiences, “is full of the worst bourgeois sadism.” These characterizations discounted the elements of dis-agreement, disobedience, indignation, anger, and criticism which have always been an integral element of mass culture.

An arguably subtler and more reliable account was ventured at roughly the same time during the 1940s and 50s by another major far-left cultural critic, the Trinidad-born Marxist maverick intellectual C. L. R. James. In striking (and, unfortunately, largely neglected) theses, James took measure of the groundbreaking achievements of culture. In American Civilization, James did not dispute the blatant profit motivation underlying American mass culture — in that respect, he started from assumptions fairly close to those underlying the Frankfurt School’s caustic critiques. Yet for him, this commercialism was precisely the precondition for infusing a healthy measure of authenticity into mass art, turning it into a formidable, if by no means straightforward or unlimited, vehicle for expressing popular sentiments:

Gangsters get what they want, trying it for a while, then are killed. In the end “crime does not pay” but for an hour and a half highly skilled actors and a huge organization of production and distribution, have given to many millions a sense of active living, and in the bloodshed, the violence, the freedom from restraint to allow pent-up feelings free play, they have released the bitterness, hate, fear, and sadism which simmer just below the surface.

The emphasis on “sadism” unites James’s perspective with that of Adorno. Yet for the former, this is not to be dismissed as simply reactionary and “bourgeois.” Such sadism, in James’s bold proposition, is not so much revolting as it is expressive of the raw force of social revolt.

Crime Starting to Turn a Profit

Looking back at James’s irreverent analysis, one finds that, if anything, popular culture has moved still further beyond the dominant formulas of the gangster films and potboilers of his time. For quite often it turns out that, in popular culture, crime does pay, and transgressive working-class heroes vicariously get away with their loot. Just think of the iconic ending of Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 The Getaway, when Doc and Carol (Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw) cross the border to safety in Mexico with their hard-earned dollars, accompanied by Quincy Jones’s uplifting soundtrack.

Fast forwarding from the 1970s to our own day, we find that crime in popular culture not only continues to pay off but also becomes ever more daring in its defiance and exposure of the aporias of class society. In the midst of a profound crisis of global capitalism, these are exciting times in the global culture industry. Elements of mass resentment are ever more impudent on page and screen. With Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite or, even, in a more ambiguous vein, Todd Phillips’s Joker, there is a strong focus on stories told from the perspective of class relations and class struggle.

With seemingly greater regularity, these movies teem with hatred of and immense frustration for bourgeois society in general. And they foreground social, racial, and gender grievances in ways which would surely have made James proud. This is evident in the magnificent productions of Ava DuVernay, such as the documentary 13th and the drama When They See Us, which highlight the way African Americans are being systematically criminalized — here, to be sure, crime pays for those in charge of society. And popular criminal stirrings are manifest even in relatively light productions aiming mostly to entertain, such as the French Netflix series Lupin (created by George Kay and François Uzan), where the traditionally white “gentleman thief” is dazzlingly emulated by Assane Diop, the son of a Senegalese immigrant who has been victimized by the French elite.

A strong candidate for the most notable example of this trend in world cinema is the recent Netflix film The White Tiger, directed by Ramin Bahrani and based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel of the same name. Set in India, it tells the story of an entrepreneur named Balram Halwai (wonderfully played by Adarsh Gourav), who ruthlessly rises from the very bottom of society to the top of the Indian pecking order.

Balram, our narrator, who is one part Balzac’s ambitious commoner Rastignac and one part Vautrin, the French novelist’s master criminal, is one of the great characters of what appears to be a contemporary revival of neorealist cinema. More direct and explicit influences on The White Tiger, as Adiga revealed in an interview, include the black American authors Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright (the film has the aforementioned DuVernay as its executive producer, in a telling structural and ideological juxtaposition).

In the novel, we see Balram brooding in his office, obsessed with the light from his chandelier, not unlike Ellison’s protagonist in The Invisible Man who fills his room with electric lights to keep out encroaching darkness. For Balram, who is up all night to monitor his thriving car-service business, the chandelier symbolizes his escape from social darkness and into the light of middle-class respectability.

To avoid spoilers, we will only say that Balram’s meteoric rise from a village boy entrapped in what he calls the “great rooster coop” of Indian society to the heights of entrepreneurial mastery is facilitated by crime. The novel and film live up to the Balzacian dictum that behind every great fortune is a crime. This isn’t simply true of Balram’s act of “entrepreneurship” but also true of the world Balram rises up against, the Indian caste-class coop, which entraps him in a web of exploitation, violence, and hypocrisy. It is a criminal world from which crime alone, as it would seem, can offer an escape route.

Becoming a criminal is, for Balram, not a choice of violating the rules of society but of daring to play according to them. What is unusual about his behavior is not its immorality but the fact that it comes from below, and that the protagonist dares to rebel against society to become the title’s remarkable “white tiger” — an exceptional being that comes only once in a generation — in order to become social. As Vautrin instructs another Balzacian upstart, Lucien de Rubempré, in Lost Illusions:

“You horrify me, father!” said Lucien. “This sounds to me like a code for highwaymen.”

“You’re right,” said [Vautrin], “but it’s not of my invention. . . . When you sit down to a game of bouillotte, do you argue about the rules? They exist, you accept them. . . . What would you say to a player who was generous enough to inform the others that he held four aces? . . . ‘Monsieur, you should never play bouillotte.’ Is it you who make the rules in the ambition-game?”

Or compare the following advice given to Balram by his father, a rickshaw driver infected with tuberculosis, in a pivotal scene. The father has long ago died, but now makes a phantasmagorical appearance to explain to his desperate son that stealing from the rich is not stealing:

Even if you were to steal it, it wouldn’t be stealing. . . . Mr. Ashok bribes politicians in order not to pay taxes. So who is he stealing from? The ordinary people of this country — me and you.

Is this not exactly Vautrin’s voice from A Harlot High and Low?

Be sly, extravagant, pitiless with the millionaire I’m sending to you. Listen! . . . this man is a thief on the World Market, he’s been without pity for a great many people, he’s grown fat on the fortunes of widows and orphans, you will be their Revenge!

Capitalism of Caste and Class

But how can the French arch-criminal of the nineteenth century appear on the streets of an Indian metropolis in the twenty-first? Like Balram’s real father, he also has died long ago, but his spirit lingers on since the world he inhabited, that of capitalism, has persisted, becoming much more truly a world market, now engulfing the entire globe.

Balram acutely describes the class struggle of postwar India. The caste system is being undermined by global capitalism, and, in the novel, Balram makes the following observation: “in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies.” This reads like an echo of the Communist Manifesto: “In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. . . . Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie . . . has simplified class antagonisms . . . into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” So Marx, another specter, also shows up in India; but then again, he was a famous admirer of Balzac.

A quintessential Bildungsroman, The White Tiger undertakes a successive and radical deconstruction of all the hallowed tenets of Indian traditionalism. By mirroring the endemic, irreversible corruption of the entire Indian system, The White Tiger indicates the necessity of transcending it.

First goes the beatified image of the Indian countryside. Balram was born in the countryside, in Laxmangarh, into a family caste of sweet-makers. He describes Laxmangarh as a land of darkness, where the village is one of immense poverty, disease, and ignorance. There, the animals, especially the water buffalos, are treated better than human beings. Greedy landlords rule Laxmangarh, and the poor mock them with animal names, calling the main landlord “the Stork” and his bullying son “the Mongoose.” These ruling-class beasts have no problem ruthlessly exploiting the poor, who they see as less than human. Corrupt politicians, such as “the Great Socialist,” promise the poor of Laxmangarh better conditions, but we learn that the Great Socialist and the Stork are actually in cahoots, working to fleece “the darkness” together.

(Netflix)

This doesn’t amount to a pessimistic rejection of all perspectives of political change, since it is socialism in name only, which is lampooned. The novel, admittedly, is even more explicit about the prospects of radical upheaval than the film. In the outskirts of Delhi, Balram hears the murmuring of the poor and open talk of the Maoist Naxalites (“it won’t last forever . . . the current situation”). Balram has visions of civil war: “Speak to me of civil war, I told Delhi.” And the city answers: “I will, she said.” Our narrator goes on to describe scenes of the oppressed masses congregating in the streets, “discussing and talking and reading in the night, alone, or in clusters around the streetlamps.” Despite the phony leftism of “the Great Socialist,” a real socialist revolution is still a possibility:

I saw hundreds that night, under trees, shrines, intersections, on benches, squinting at newspapers, holy books, journals, Communist Party pamphlets. What were they reading about? What were they talking about? But what else? Of the end of the world.

Democracy or Sewage?

In both novel and film, Balram rejects liberal democracy — at least in its Indian incarnation — as a sham built on the foundations of a relentless machinery of exploitation and corruption. As Balram puts it in his emails to the Chinese premier, he wants the sewage systems fixed first. Then they can talk about democracy. Just as Brecht famously said that food must come before morality, so Balram’s formulation insists that talk of democracy is meaningless in the midst of poverty.

While Balram’s attitudes become increasingly modern and sober, the Americanized Ashok he serves, the youngest son of the Stork, romanticizes his fake piety. They mock what they mistake as his authentic superstition, but they also find it endearing. Of course, Balram must act pious out of fear that his employers think he is harboring atheistic and communist sympathies. When Ashok goes through a marital crisis and loses his way, Balram reassures him that traditional Indian religion will save him; he even takes him to a temple to pray. But our faithful (really faithless) narrator knows better.

Ashok and his wife Pinky do not quite understand the caste system. They find it incompatible with their own more liberal notions of equality and human dignity. Ashok’s family warns him about being too friendly with Balram. As his brother the Mongoose tells him in the novel, pity for the suffering of the servant class is dangerous. Such an emotion legitimates the feelings of resentment someone like Balram has for his subordinate condition.

Later in the story, Ashok realizes the wisdom of caste, and gradually overcomes any pity he once had for Balram. One cannot talk about equality and dignity while benefiting from exploitation. Thus, Ashok’s superficial attachment to modern liberalism dissolves, and he accepts his role in the family as a master. The landlords understand that caste is a superior bulwark against democratic subversion than mere class society. But such an appreciation of caste over class is not limited to the traditionalism of the Stork. It can also be found in the writings of the European philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who recommended a return to the Laws of Manu to suppress the rebelliousness of European workers. Nietzsche grasped that socialism needed to be fought with stronger weapons than democratic liberalism could offer. As he explained in The Antichrist:

The order of castes, the supreme, the dominating law, is only the sanctioning of a natural order, a natural law of the first rank. . . . In every healthy society, there can be distinguished three types of man of divergent physiological tendency which mutually condition one another and each of which possesses its own hygiene, its own realm of work, its own sort of mastery and feeling of perfection. Nature, not Manu, separates from one another the predominantly spiritual type, the predominantly muscular and temperamental type, and the third type distinguished neither in the one nor the other, the mediocre type — the last as the great majority, the first as the élite.

Nietzsche, the voice of a philosophical Mongoose, would therefore like to see class distinctions naturalized and cemented in castes: “In all this, to say it again, there is nothing capricious, nothing ‘artificial’; whatever is different from this is artificial — nature is then confounded.” It is against this that Balram must rise, showing the thorough artificiality of the rooster coop, founded on an intricate architecture of dependency and fear.

The White Tiger indicts the Indian culture industry in a way that may perhaps give Adornians some solace. The film clarifies that Indian popular morality, inculcated by way of countless narratives of popular culture, must be overcome, too. This morality preaches reconciliation with one’s oppressors and sentimental attachment to the masters. This sentimentality must be resolutely and consciously unlearned. And yet C. L. R. James is again vindicated, since it is precisely through popular “sadism” that sentimentality is undermined. An inhumane system does not deserve humaneness; it can only be redressed with unflinching resolve. Sentimentality equals servitude.

“Men born in the light, like my master,” Balram somberly, and soberly, reflects, “have the choice to be good. Men born in the coop, like me, we don’t have that choice.” This cruelty, however, unlike bourgeois sadism, is not the source of gratification. Balram’s are crimes of reason, not passion. He is motivated neither by hatred nor by the desire for revenge, both of which he explicitly disowns, but by the desire to be free.

Even the family, that last bastion of all conservative traditionalism, is demystified, attesting the full reach of the narrative’s radicalism. When Balram’s father dies, the matriarch of the Halwai family, old granny Kusum, insists that Balram work at the teashop to make more money for the family (and for her). Later on, she agrees to give him money for driving lessons, but only on the condition that he send all the money he earns back to the village. The extended family is denuded of affective ties, revealing itself to be an elaborate exploitative apparatus. It is, moreover, the cornerstone of the rooster coop, since any effort to break free from it will have dire consequences for the members of one’s extended family. This is the price that freedom demands, and Balram is ultimately willing to pay it.

Realism and the Masses

Along with the novels of Balzac and, as others have suggested, Charles Dickens, another point of comparison seems mandatory: the pioneering films of the great Satyajit Ray, the father of Indian neorealism. So how does the film compare with Ray’s classics of world cinema? At first glance, there is a world separating the two cases. Ray’s Apu trilogy, to cite a notable example, was slow-paced, with sparse black-and-white canvasses — a stark contrast with the extravagantly colored scenes of a hectic modern India we find in Bahrani’s film. Even more striking is the contrast between the mild humanism we find in Ray and the flagrant cynicism and violence of Bahrani. Ray, after all, took his cue less from Balzac and more from the neorealist director Vittorio De Sica, the Italian humanist. And yet, on closer look, the works appear united on another, deeper plane. In both there is a passionate concern for the fate of the Indian masses and identification with their humble protagonists and their dreams, aspirations, sufferings, humiliations, and triumphs. As the great Marxist literary critic Georg Lukács wrote in Studies of European Realism apropos the representatives of realism:

The question grows essential and decisive only when we examine concretely the position taken up by the writer. What does he love and what does he hate? It is thus that we arrive at a deeper interpretation of the writer’s true Weltanschauung, at the problem of the artistic value and fertility of the writer’s world-view. . . . Realists such as Balzac or Tolstoy in their final posing of questions always take the most important, burning problems of the community for their starting point; their pathos as writers is always stimulated by the sufferings of the people . . . it is these sufferings that determine the objects and direction of their love and hate and through these emotions determine also what they see in their poetic visions and how they see it.

We see, then, how in such terms both Ray and Bahrani are quintessential realists. Their hatreds are very similar, and so are the objects of their love, even if Bahrani’s protagonists are subjects of a tougher love.

And if Ray’s heroes might appear naive and gentle beside Balram, let’s not forget how they, too, were sometimes driven to petty crime in order to fulfill their human ambitions. Recall how the girl Durga in Pather Panchali had to steal to satisfy her craving for sweets. And indeed, that the founding text of neorealism, Bicycle Thieves, was centered around petty crime induced by a heartless social order. Balram’s crimes are not petty, to be sure, but do they not replicate Balzac’s words?

It is not in sophistical books that the thief calls property, heredity, the social safeguards into question: he suppresses them sharply. For him, to steal is to enter into his own. . . .  Modern reformers write wooly, long-drawn, nebulous treatises, or philanthropic novels; but the thief acts! He is clear as a fact, he is logical as a blow with the fist. And what style!

Will the Tiger Change Its Stripes?

But does The White Tiger ultimately call into question property, heredity, and social safeguards? Or is the goal a private escape from misery and individual ascent into mastery? By opening a vista toward what might be interpreted as a collectivization of Balram’s revolt, the film ends up extrapolating its ruthless conclusions from the individual plane to that of coordinated social action. Balram, the new master, appears at the front, his individual odyssey to criminal capitalism successfully completed.

His backdrop, however, is a crowd of looming disciples — silent, grim, and determined. These are the subordinates in his firm, tellingly called White Tiger Drivers. His relationship with his employees is strictly contractual, and he doesn’t treat them like servants or family. He even holds out the prospect that they, too, can become businessmen if they work hard for him. And yet the very fact that the white tiger is now no longer a one-of-a-kind specimen, a freak of nature, but has multiplied and become a crowd, seems to herald another twist in the plot. Might Balram possibly be the next victim of the red, sorry, white tigers?