APRIL 26, 2021
“THE COLONIZED MAN,” writes Frantz Fanon in his postcolonial masterwork The Wretched of the Earth (1961), “liberates himself in and through violence.” And Balram Halwai, narrator and protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s epistolary novel The White Tiger (2008), seems to agree. Adiga’s debut novel, winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, reads at once as a satirical bildungsroman, a savage critique of contemporary India, and a snarling treatise on life and livelihood under global capitalism. The brash and verbose Balram promises that his “life’s story,” relayed in a series of late-night letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, will reveal “the truth about Bangalore” and demonstrate “everything there is to know about […] entrepreneurship.” Balram is the dispossessed son of a dusty, rural mining town that he derides as irredeemably mired in the “Darkness.” He first becomes a servant, a chauffeur, for the wealthy cosmopolitan Ashok Sharma before achieving apparent wealth and status after slitting his throat and taking his name. “All I wanted was the chance to be a man,” Balram growls, “and for that, one murder was enough.”
All of which makes it, at first glance, compelling material for this year’s cinematic adaptation — it’s just good content. Classified by Netflix as “offbeat,” “provocative,” and, predictably, “gritty,” writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s film maintains the propulsive energy and smoldering rage of its source text. (Aravind Adiga dedicates his novel to Ramin Bahrani — well connected and worldly, the two bonded at Columbia University — inviting intriguing questions of textual intimacy and adaptive agency within the creative process.) Like the prowling cat of its iconography, Bahrani’s The White Tiger announces itself with clawed menace and carries itself with coiled violence — Bahrani’s tiger, Adarsh Gourav, prowls his sets, bares his teeth, flashes his eyes at the lens. He smiles; he seethes. Bahrani’s cinematography, moreover, is bold, sleek, and swift, intensifying through a kinetic, kaleidoscopic array of cuts, flashbacks, monologues, and exchanges. At times, his camera is languid, basking in a shot or scene; at others, he slips into a fish-eye, distorting our sense of things. Always, though, that voice: angry, ironic, incendiary. Bahrani’s hunger to break the fourth wall — to address, and challenge, the audience — imbues The White Tiger with a sense of alienating intimacy and bristling provocation that threatens and thrills. Bahrani’s screenwriting and direction are fierce and forceful — The White Tiger is a fine piece of filmmaking.
But Netflix’s splashy adaptation invites renewed scrutiny upon some of the text’s central intentions and assumptions — and offers a few contemporary tangles of its own. While Balram claims to be motivated by “freedom,” what sort of existential and ideological bite will such a worn tooth bear in this text? Balram seems at once decidedly Fanonian — he explicitly frames his murder as a reclamation of his humanity — but also disappointingly defanged. What committed freedom fighter is content merely to manage a taxicab service in the global tech capital of Bangalore? And what impassioned revolutionary, upon killing his master, merely adopts his name in turn, replicating the same power structure that has, until now, contained him? Meet the new boss.
And for that matter, what might we make of Netflix, and the increasing internationalism of its library and lexicon? Bahrani’s Tiger joins an emergent and expanding catalog of non-American projects produced and distributed by the global tech giant, which is increasingly funded by non-domestic subscribers and filled with non-domestic content, including films representing a variety of languages. Much of the dialogue in The White Tiger, for instance, is in Hindi. Of course, Hollywood has also grown increasingly reliant on global markets, a cultural logic that enforces a formal and political homogeneity, especially upon its blockbusters. But unlike those Hollywood exports, Netflix develops and produces films in local countries, in local languages, with local narratives. In 2016, Wired identified Netflix as “the first truly global content network,” and their global ambition and influence have only since increased. Meet the new boss indeed.
But what sort of aesthetic and ideological revisions, what subtle homogeneities of its own, might Netflix insist upon this text? How might a project of transnational cinematic adaptation function, in both form and content, under global capitalism — and how might this film clarify Netflix’s neocolonial logic of production and distribution? In short, how might Netflix cage The White Tiger?
What’s thrilling about The White Tiger is how forcefully it shatters bourgeois pieties; what’s frustrating is how it ultimately reinforces them. While Bahrani’s film seems to conceive of itself as a radical rejection of Slumdog Millionaire — Balram scornfully dismisses Danny Boyle’s 2008 neoliberal fantasy within the film — it rather enacts a reactionary response to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), which it resembles in plot if not in politics. In this way, The White Tiger might inherit more generic material from the gangster film, such as Martin Scorsese’s 2019 The Irishman (another Netflix vehicle), than from a more critical global cinematic tradition that includes South Korean satirist Bong Joon-ho or Indian artists such as activist documentarian Anand Patwardhan or filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj. Bhardwaj’s own Shakespearean trilogy, for instance — adaptations all — presents a particularly revealing counterpoint to The White Tiger; his Maqbool, a re-envisioning of Macbeth planted within the bloody, bewildering underworld of Mumbai, is far more attentive to the tragic irony and futility of such violent ambition, and altogether more ambitious in its social and political critique, than Bahrani’s Tiger can muster of its Balram or its Bangalore.
While The White Tiger fancies itself a film roiling with revolutionary, eat-the-rich energies — a sharpened and sympathetic celebration of the subaltern in the spirit of Bahrani’s earlier films such as Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, or Goodbye Solo — it realizes a conventional, if violent, narrative of bourgeois self-becoming. After all, Balram’s crowning achievement — the telos of his angry bloodlust and broiling ambition — is not only to become an entrepreneur and founder of his own taxicab startup, White Tiger Drivers, but also to become a brand himself, to freeze his humanity into a logo. Why dismantle the master’s house when one can merely displace the master? Balram’s violence, then, is not revolutionary but reactionary. All he wants is to be the boss. It ain’t liberation; it’s late capitalism, red in tooth and claw.
But he’s not even the boss, not really. Throughout The White Tiger, Balram merely enacts an upholstered and air-conditioned repetition of his father’s body-breaking labor — he’s exchanged his father’s rickshaw for the automobile, rural Laxmangarh for urban Bangalore, regional landlords for global tycoons and tech workers. White Tiger Drivers contracts itself to “famous technology companies” and their ubiquitous call centers, and Balram’s engines prowl the streets of Bangalore by night on behalf of “these outsourcing companies” that he imagines “virtually run America now.” (Netflix’s own Indian offices, as it happens, are in Mumbai.) Balram may own his company and his cabs, but he’s still a chauffeur — like his father, he’s still ferrying the monied. And, as in his letters to Jiabao, he’s still sweet-talking the Man. His blood-bought freedom only further entangles him in a web of global capital, imperial control, and the neocolonial culture industry. In earning his stripes, Balram becomes further ensnared by them.
Throughout the film, Bahrani develops two conceits central to Adiga’s novel — the inescapable “rooster coop” of Indian impoverishment and social disinvestment, as well as the exceptional “White Tiger” who escapes. According to Balram, the rooster coop enforces a brutal system of “perpetual servitude” in which the destitute, “stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages,” begin “pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space.” Trapped in the coop, subjects — avian, human — turn on each other. (Bahrani’s film overlays Balram’s narration upon footage of a working coop, the camera tracking the cleaver’s rise and swift descent, a skull’s sudden split from spine.) But Balram pathologizes poverty, finding fault not in the structure of the coop, nor in the status of the butcher, but in the situation of the doomed roosters and hens — a fate, for Balram, that might be surmounted by predatory will, through the fierce audacity of self-becoming.
After rejecting the coop’s “crowd of thugs and idiots,” a category that includes his own family, Balram realizes himself as the “white tiger” — “the rarest of animals” who “comes along only once in a generation.” (Consider here how the term “tiger economy” might also describe a nation’s sudden, and unsustainable, market surge.) Ultimately, Balram’s epistolary project channels a narrative of angry class consciousness — Balram, whose birth name, “Munna,” translates merely to “boy,” “could be half the men in India” — into a process of bourgeois self-fashioning: The White Tiger dramatizes how Balram seems to escape the coop to become the singular, predatory white tiger. Reifying, rather than rejecting, the coop, Balram abandons his Fanonian premise moments after invoking it.
Of course, Adiga knows this — and his novel is less narrow in its conception and less sparing in its critique, and fundamentally more self-aware, than Bahrani’s film. On the level of syntax, Balram’s ironizing textual presence skewers any rhetorical utterance. (Balram further lampoons discursive forms such as pulp magazines and “American business books” within the novel, though he does love poetry; he also claims that, “on principle,” he never watches “Hindi films.”) A narrator who claims to “play it both ways” — at once “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere” — his is a hermeneutic of subversion, and Adiga’s Tiger must be read at a slant. Balram even satirizes his own success, undermining his entrepreneurial claim by describing his own cramped, dimly lit office as a “hole in the wall,” in which he works through the night, beset by lizards and beholden to Western calendars and clocks. Demonstrating the frictions and fissures of the cosmopolitan imagination, Adiga reveals yet another neocolonial inheritance — the aesthetic and ideological mechanisms (including film) through which a colonial logic reasserts itself. Adiga doubts that caste — and, for that matter, capitalism and colonialism — can be circumvented quite so easily.
Curiously, Bahrani excises a third controlling metaphor entirely from his adaptation: while he keeps both the coop and tiger, he cuts the zoo. Dismissing the brutalities of the caste system, Adiga’s Balram celebrates a glorious Indian past, “when it was the richest nation on earth,” as a “clean, well kept, orderly zoo.” This inherited hierarchy of “zoo law” was destroyed, however, by British imperialism, and their 1947 departure — and the realization of a postcolonial India — instead inaugurated a brutal “jungle law” in which “the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart.” The coop, in other words, is not a product of poverty but a legacy of colonialism. In this way, Adiga’s Tiger interrogates an incomplete project of freedom, a curdled promise of decolonization, and the corrosive power of both corruption and violence. By cutting the zoo from the screenplay, Bahrani dulls Balram’s self-aware ironizing and dismisses Adiga’s defiant metaphor: in so doing, Netflix declaws its Tiger.
Bahrani’s Tiger closes with a stunning scene that betrays its blinkered ideological focus: Balram, sleek in a tailored suit and sporting a modest paunch, surveys his figurative jungle from his exquisite, glass-walled office. Darkly eyeing the camera and flanked by his drivers, arrayed all in white, Balram gloats, “I’ve switched sides. I’ve made it. I’ve broken out of the coop.” After celebrating Balram’s uninteresting triumphalism, his shallow satisfaction, Bahrani’s screenplay details that Balram “exits frame, leaving a wall of drivers, servants, perhaps new White Tigers, ready to strike, confronting the camera, confronting the audience.” That the film closes with this shot — and its suggestion of ceaseless class struggle within India — significantly narrows the scope of the text’s ideological concern. Whereas Adiga explicitly situates his satirical novel within a postcolonial tradition, mapping the lures and limits of autonomy within a global system of cultural, economic, and political hegemony, Bahrani’s self-satisfied film limits its focus to intra-Indian class struggle, of violence contained within the national coop.
And why now? At the time of The White Tiger’s 2008 publication, Manmohan Singh served as India’s prime minister. Singh, a Western-educated, reform-minded liberal with a slate of corruption allegations, represents a species of cosmopolitan elite that the novel critiques, especially through its representation of Ashok and India’s ruling class. But India’s current right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi, represents a different genus altogether. In both novel and film, Balram’s reflexive misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia, alongside his cynical and expedient embrace of violence, reads, now, not as ironic or incidental but rather as anticipatory and reflective of India’s authoritarian, Hindu-nationalist turn. Similarly, Balram’s vicious jokes — his linguistic fog of feints and furies — resonate with our own era of reactionary violence, itself fueled by ironic ideological and aesthetic affiliations. The White Tiger’s rhetorical intentions and political implications are less coherent, and more malignant, today. Meanwhile, India is currently witnessing one of the largest-scale labor protests in its history, as thousands of farmers — including Muslims and Hindus, women and men — have organized, since September, in solidarity against Modi’s neoliberal agricultural interventions. This nonviolent mass movement offers one strategy to dismantle Balram’s coop — not through individual resentment and violent grievance but rather popular inspiration and collective mobilization. Against these contemporary trends, Balram’s petit-bourgeois rebellion reads, at best, as rather trite — at worst, again, reactionary.
And what about Netflix? In one sense, the slain Ashok, stylish cosmopolitan, offers a compelling interpretive model for Netflix’s approach to The White Tiger. Arriving in India from the United States, flush with American dollars, Ashok participates in his family’s twin projects of coal mining and political corruption while seeking to “diversify” his family’s portfolio. Early in the film, Ashok excitedly characterizes Balram as an embodiment of “the New India,” eager “to surf the web, buy a cell phone, and rise up into the middle class.” In this exchange — which does not appear in Adiga’s novel — Ashok imagines Balram to represent “the biggest untapped market in India,” a burgeoning market for goods, services, and, of course, content. In this way, Ashok seeks to perform a neocolonial two-step: relying at once on Balram’s labor and his rupee. (Consider, for instance, how Netflix both buys and sells “local-language [and] regional content” within an “international marketplace.”) And of course, Ashok misinterprets Balram; dismissing his humanity, he fails to see the threat in front of him. He misreads his text.
But in another sense, Balram provides a more provocative angle into how we might see Netflix. The rare beast, hungry wunderkind, and ambitious iconoclast, Balram’s disruption and destruction of the elite seem to herald a new day, but, like Netflix, he’s just another predator claiming to be an entrepreneur. And at the same time, Balram — like the film itself, caged within Netflix’s vast catalog — functions largely as a conveyance, a vehicle for elite interests, shuttling things around, increasing corporate valuation, accelerating others’ local incursions, and facilitating their global influence. “Tomorrow” is a futurity that Adiga freights with dialectical significance, but, “tomorrow,” Bahrani’s Balram — content to placate the powerful and furnish neocolonial dreams — merely plans to build a new hotel in Bangalore in order to provide “white people […] somewhere to sleep.”
And then there’s the audience, prowling the spaces of our Netflix queues: those worlds streaming through our screens — such a colorful multiplicity of selves, stories, and styles — may at first resemble a cosmopolitan future but increasingly function as yet another neocolonial cage.
Wilson Taylor is a teacher and writer interested in modern and contemporary literature and film. His criticism appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Lights Film Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and occasionally tweets @wilsonltaylor.