In a scene from Netflix’s , Bahrani’s film marries Balram to his rage, before breaking his moral compass in bed. Balram, the servant starts out wanting to be a servant all his life before he realises that he can be the master of at least one thing, anything, in life – especially when it is bargained away by his master, like a dispensable object. The indignity of witnessing life being transacted like a token of legal gratitude introduces Balram to the possibility of seeing it through the lens of ownership as opposed to tenancy. Anger overtakes moral debt at the precise point where Indian cinema’s protagonists would otherwise choose the virtuous.
In spirit, The White Tiger has a lot in common with Sudhir Mishra’s underrated Serious Men, another takedown of the rags-to-riches narrative where a brilliant Nawazuddin Siddiqui cons his way to the top. Not because it’s his dream, but because it’s his only way out of a nightmare existence. There isn’t the romanticism of making a destination work, because making it work, is the destination for most. India’s inequality ensures that for most people dreams equal survival, in which case the poetry of coincidence is wiped clean by the weight of our prosaic burdens. Yes, often people make it out, but the ones we hear of are the morally hand-dressed achievers whose success we let pass because it seems allowed more than it seems poached. In contrast, he who bends the rules, because they were against him, to begin with, finds himself reprimanded through collective imagination. Because at least when we are, like in the darkness of a theatre, together, we crave the foundations we never cared to build in the light of day.
India’s working class has been fed the miasma of righteousness for ages, instructing them to do the right thing unto right happens to them. It’s near-sighted but it works because a certain class gets to perpetuate the myth of what ‘clean’ looks like. We get to make ads telling people white means honesty, even though it probably accounts for the most dishonest gentry this country has to offer. To soothe the wounds of those below us, every once in a while, we launch a ballad of class-breaking love or caste-breaking careers, just so the smell of success remains incoherently tangled in the stench of survival.
Films like Serious Men and The White Tiger, however, channel a welcome fury against the odds without wanting to entertain the bet. Because the Indian dream is neither as linear nor as undefiled as a misleadingly straight line in the sand. It is instead the like sea knotted, anguished and inseparable from the suffering of its last wave.