Friday, January 29, 2021

Saving a White Tiger (one whose bite is worse than his bark)

 Many years ago, in a New Delhi zoo, I saw a white tiger. It was a beautiful and powerful animal, restlessly prowling its grim-looking cage. On that same trip to India, I also saw a cross-section of humanity I’ll never forget. I didn’t have much close contact with the very rich or the very poor, but being among educated, financially stable people like me was startling in its own way. I was treated as a welcome guest in a number of middle-class households, but could never get used to the presence of servants. Staying with one family in a comfortable but hardly luxurious flat in Bombay (now Mumbai), I was shocked to discover that the family housemaid—a pleasant woman responsible for cooking, cleaning, and childcare—slept each night just outside the apartment, on the doormat. This personal interaction with a member of the Indian underclass made me realize how naïve I’d been in my view of human dignity.

 The legend, apparently, is that a white tiger comes along only once in a generation. The tiger—rare and dazzling—becomes the spirit animal (so to speak) of the lead character in The White Tiger, a debut novel by Aravind Adiga that won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2008. I haven’t read the novel, but now it’s a fascinating film, passionately directed by Adiga’s longtime friend, the Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani. The movie, featuring an all-Indian cast, reveals a slice of Indian life that is both exciting to look at and deeply disturbing to experience. At its heart is the role of the servant class in today’s India.

 The India of The White Tiger boasts computer technology, high-rise luxury hotels, and sophisticated call centers. Still, the lifestyle of its wealthy citizens depends on the labors of kowtowing servants who obey their masters’ every whim with a smile, tolerating insults and even physical abuse, while regarding their employers as family. Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is an eager young lad, pulled out of school at an early age because his father can’t afford the fees, who maneuvers to attach himself to a local honcho as an in-house driver. The film shows him evolving, through a series of vivid episodes, from a devoted underling to a crafty young man ready to put his own goals ahead of those of the ruling class. Particularly mesmerizing is his interaction with his boss’s younger son (Rajkummar Rao), who was schooled in America. Hip and restless, handsome young Ashok ponders his future prospects, expecting his driver to be sometimes a lackey and sometimes a confidante. Even more interesting is the son’s new wife, Pinky Madam, played by the gorgeous Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who served as one of the film’s producers as well as playing a key role. As an Indian-American raised by working-class bodega owners in Washington Heights, Pinky veers between democratic sympathy for the underdog and a bad case of social hauteur. It is she who sets off a wild chain of events that will prove fateful to all concerned.

 Much of the plot of The White Tiger can be viewed as tragic, but its final scenes take us in the direction of black comedy, as Balram becomes determined to better himself, no matter what. There’s also the witty fact that the story as we see it unfold is narrated by an older Balram, who –now a successful businessman—is trying to impress the visiting Chinese premier with his entrepreneurial talents. (“America is so yesterday,” he says, insisting that the brown man and the yellow man hold the keys to the world of tomorrow. Maybe he’s right?)    

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