“One day, I saw a little boy driving a huge cart horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength, we should have no power over them.”
That’s what British author George Orwell had to say about the inspiration for his most famous story, Animal Farm. It also functions as an accurate synopsis for The White Tiger, a new Netflix film about a bright, young Indian man who, born into the lowest caste, suffers blow after blow, humiliation after humiliation, as he attempts to climb – and, ultimately, break free from – the social order of his country.
Born in a Basement
Director Ramin Bahrani, an American filmmaker with Iranian roots, has been making movies about wealth and status long before it was a trendy thing to do. His 2005 film, Man Push Cart, follows a Pakistani immigrant who hauls a depreciated food cart through the mean streets of Manhattan. Chop Shop (2007), which led Roger Ebert to proclaim Bahrani a director of the decade, revolves around a Latino orphan working in a greasy car shop – same city, different borough. Even when his main characters are white Americans, they still live at society’s fringes.
Like South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, whose 2019 smash hit Parasite seems to have ushered in a new age of class-conscious films, White Tiger approaches the concept of injustice from a contemporary perspective. The oppressed and downtrodden have been hero-material for storytellers everywhere since the dawn of time, but whereas most ancient myths treat abject poverty as a curveball thrown by destiny, today’s writers prefer to see it as the result of a flawed, man-made system that, even if it cannot be changed, can still be cheated.
While Parasite hides its message behind ambiguous symbols and a genre-defying narrative, White Tiger is a lot easier to follow, and its impact is great for it. As a kid, protagonist Balram was the first in his class to read and speak English. Though his teacher told him he could accomplish great things, he was pulled out of school to hammer coal in the back of a tea shop. Unwilling to follow in the footsteps of his dad and brother, both of whom were forced into arranged marriages and abandon their own dreams for the sake of others, Balram wants out, and finds a way when he discovers that the Stork, an upper-caste landlord, is hiring a driver for his son Ashok.
A Slave Who Dreams of Killing Their Master
“I knew this was the master for me,” Balram says when he first lays eyes on Ashok, a westernized entrepreneur who just returned to India after spending time in Brooklyn. This line not only signals the moment that he finds his goal but also the instance that I, the viewer, realized I was getting ready to watch a thoughtful good movie that doesn’t shy away from big ideas. Though Balram wants to make something of himself, life at the bottom has led him to believe the best he could hope for is to be a loyal servant to an influential ruler.
Such contradictions aren’t just present in Balram; the writers have done a commendable job creating well-rounded people whose actions remain predictable and logical from start to finish. Just look at Ashok, for example. Influenced by his American wife Pinky, he is now critical of social customs the rest of his family accepts without question, like treating their servants as inferiors and beating them whenever they disobey. In classic capitalist fashion, however, Ashok’s only nice to Balram if it pays a dividend, and when Pinky kills a pedestrian while drunk driving, he barely protests when his father moves to blame Balram for the crime.
It’s in this complicated, borderline sexual relationship between employer and employee that White Tiger and Parasite resemble one another most closely. Though Ashok and Pinky denounce the arbitrary distinctions between castes, they still treat their driver in a patronizing way. As Roxana Hadadi put it in her review for RogerEbert.com, the couple, like the Park family, is “unable to understand how offensive their very existence is to someone like Balram, and how much worse their moments of kindness make that disparity.”
That, though, is where the similarities between these films end. While Parasite treats the killing blow that Mr. Kim delivers to Mr. Park as an involuntary chemical reaction, those watching White Tiger can already see what’s coming for Ashok, because even though Balram ultimately strikes his master on a whim, the anger that steers him has been boiling all his life. It was there when he had to promise his grandma that he’d give her all his earnings, when he had to dress up as a British maharaja for Pinky’s birthday, and when he had to sign a declaration stating that he was responsible for the hit-and-run.
The Fruits of Anger
If that huge cart horse Orwell was writing about really is that much stronger than the little boy on its back, why doesn’t it resist? I like to think it’s because animals are spiritually superior to humans, because the principle of nonviolent resistance to evil was etched into their DNA but faded from ours. Until recently, that’s what most stories wanted us to believe, anyway. Following a template that’s as old as Cain and Abel, characters who murder, whether it’s out of spite or self-righteousness, unknowingly doom themselves to a lifetime of mental agony.
Today, that template is being tested more fervently than it has in quite some time. And not just by Balram, who uses the money he took from Ashok to set up a cab service that does take responsibility when a driver unintentionally hits someone. It’s tested by many other characters in popular fiction, including Breaking Bad’s Walter White – who dies admiring the meth empire he created rather than the loving family he destroyed – and Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort – who sticks by his belief that, in order to thrive in a world where everything’s for sale, one must become a clever, cruel salesman.
The way I see it, these stories all proclaim that the humiliation of the servant outweighs the guilt of the transgressor. White Tiger does go the extra mile, though, as it leaves little to no doubt about whether Balram was right to do what he did.
BONUS – When researching this movie, I learned that director Bahrani is a pretty big fan of Honoré de Balzac. Balzac was a French author who was writing stories about class struggle before godfather of the socialists Karl Marx ever even coined the term. If you liked White Tiger and want to enjoy more stories that explore social conflict through deeply personal narratives, I highly recommend reading his stuff. Promise the dialogue is as good as the juiciest parts of Game of Thrones.