The White Tiger

Revolution only begins when you eliminate your corrupt masters and free yourself from the yoke of servitude.

The White Tiger is a film with a message that could not be any clearer. Evil is everywhere. Even you, the goodhearted, have a portion of evil within. It all depends on how you wield that evil. Is your evil used for the greater good? Or is your evil used to perpetuate the servitude of millions in a system that is so corrupt that it can no longer be reformed through good laws and good deeds? Good laws can obviously never come to pass because the political process has been so corrupted that the mega-rich and the politicians work hand-in-hand to perpetuate servitude and corruption, which is in the end beneficial to both of these groups. Good deeds are like the proverbial farts in a hurricane. They dissipate before they can be in the least bit effective.

Based on the bestselling novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger is the story of a driver who works for a rich Indian couple. Attaining the position of driver is already quite a feat for him, since he is from one of the lower castes and is, like most of the people in his village, condemned to live in poverty and at the mercy of a landlord who has absolute control over the village. The system under which the protagonist lives is feudal. It is an evolved modern type of feudalism that allows the villagers to earn money in any way they can, but then, following the feudal/mafia playbook, the landlord gets a portion of whatever the villagers may be lucky enough to earn. Of course the landlord – through henchmen – is the ultimate arbiter of life and death as well. In fact, Yanis Varoufakis thinks we are currently entering the age of techno-feudalism.

Corruption is a major theme throughout the film. Not only the corrupt landlord who pays off politicians to curry [no pun intended] their favor and avoid paying taxes, but the corruption of the main character as well, who weaponizes a rival driver’s religion (Moslem) so that he can ensure his own rise to number one driver in the family. Thus ensuring his transfer to New Delhi as the driver of the landlord’s eldest son.

In the early 1970s I lived in New Delhi, the lucky son of an Italian diplomat. In those days Italy had some juice because Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, was married to Sonia, an Italian he met at Cambridge. She wasn’t politically engaged in those days, but the system worked then as it does now – it’s who you know, not what you know. So I was privileged on two counts: one, I was a European resident; two, my mother was a diplomat. I played tennis on the grass courts of the exclusive Ashoka hotel; all my clothes were made by tailors who copied designs I gave them from magazines; our cook could prepare a meal for 8 people on very short notice. There were no supermarkets, there were no computers, nobody used credit cards. India was modern on the surface, in Delhi at least, but it was like it had always been once you left the metropolitan areas. That’s why it was so easy to shoot the 1972 film Siddhartha there. They didn’t have to look hard to find locations that looked exactly like they did during the Buddha’s era. Nothing had changed since then. Not really.

Was I an evil part of the system back then? Am I still an evil part of the system now, even if I don’t live there anymore? To both questions I’m afraid that I must answer: Yes. Now of course I measure my culpability according to how much of my participation was conscious back then and how much of my current participation is willful.

In 1970, I was barely conscious of the existence of a “system.” My consciousness would have been like that joke about the old fish talking to the young fish:

Old fish: Water’s a bit chilly today, isn’t it?

Young fish: What’s water?

Yes, I was unconsciously culpable. I had been dragged to the country from my mother’s previous posting in Nairobi, Kenya. In our residence in Jor Bagh, next to the golf links, not far from the Oberoi (Hilton in those days) hotel, and just down the road from where the Italian Embassy was located, I had nothing to do all day except play the piano and read James Joyce. It took me three months of reading as much as I could each day to get through Ulysses. Because of the status of India as a “third world” country, books were incredibly cheap. From a book stall in Connaught circle (officially known as Connaught Place) I was able to buy my copy of Ulysses for 10 rupees. In those days that was less than a dollar, if you traded dollars on the black market. And everyone traded on the black market (except for the people from the American embassy who – under penalty of American law – had to exchange their dollars at the official rate). Many years later my mother explained the system used by the Italian embassy at that time. Before payday, near the end of every month, each employee would tell one of the commercial attachés in the embassy how many rupees they wanted for the next month. The attaché would tell them how many pounds they would have to transfer from their account – in London – to another account – in London. On the first of every month a man would arrive with a briefcase full of rupees and each employee would get the amount they had ordered. All of course at black market exchange rates.

In The White Tiger we see how corruption works at the village level, the local political level, and at the national level. We see who benefits from it directly and indirectly. And, yes, it is never the impoverished people at the bottom of the system.

In the USA (and here in Europe), the impoverished are in plain sight, everywhere; every day you see them but you look away because it makes you uncomfortable. You are part of the system that bestows certain benefits and you don’t want those benefits to disappear. Does that make you evil? Well, maybe. But probably, like your colleagues and neighbors, and like the protagonist of The White Tiger, you are trapped in servitude and don’t know how to escape without losing everything that you have somehow, through hard work or cleverness or just dumb luck, gained. You might even be quite wealthy (not a billionaire of course), or a business owner. And yet you are still in servitude. You are both a servant to competition and to the whims of the rigged capitalist marketplace.

Our protagonist in the film, Balram, has an aptitude for learning. He can read well as a child and he has prospects, the possibility of a scholarship to a better school. But the system keeps him in servitude, first to his family, so that they have money to survive (of course a portion of his earnings must be paid in fealty to the landlord of the village). Being quick-witted, Balram sees an opportunity to become the second driver for the landlord’s family, and he grabs that opportunity, at the same time thrusting his family deeper into debt to the landlord.

As driver number two, he is assigned to chauffer the landlord’s son and his wife. Both of them have recently returned to India from the United States, and both of them are very liberal in their treatment of Balram. However, Balram, trapped in his coop of servitude, tries to maintain the distance he knows is necessary for survival in the ancient system that traps him.

Let me just say at this point, without providing you with any spoilers so that the film has its proper impact on you when you watch it, that Balram is predominantly a good soul, doing what he thinks is right, for the reasons he thinks are right. Until, one day, he decides to free himself from the coop and no longer be a servant. Most reviews I’ve read about the film (after seeing it!) call him an “entrepreneur” instead of a revolutionary. Stuck in servitude to the capitalist system the review writers dare not speak the word: revolution.

Balram is a revolutionary of the best kind. He uses his power for evil in the best way he knows how, in a system that will allow him only one route to freedom for himself. He uses that route to benefit others and to free them from servitude as well.

Early on in the film, when his acumen as a young student is correctly ascertained, a teacher refers to him as a white tiger, an animal born rarely, only once in a generation. And when Balram goes to a zoo and for the first time actually sees a white tiger, trapped in a small cage, he faints. This is the moment in which he understands the meaning of Saṃsāra and has his Moksha (enlightenment); and from that moment on he has only one path to tread, the path toward liberation of himself and his fellow servant class from the endless chain of servitude that has fettered them for millennia. The fact that he uses the means at his disposal – the capitalist system – to initiate this liberation, makes him, yes, by current definition an “entrepreneur.” But his entrepreneurship is in the service of a revolution which will free servants from their chains, not bind them eternally.

In that sense, in The White Tiger the message of Buddha and the message of Marx coincide: In order to throw off your worldly chains, you need to wake up and be a revolutionary in your own right.

In my opinion, the trailer gives away a bit too much, but if you must watch the trailer then:

Danny Antonelli lives in Hamburg, Germany


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