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Poverty and aspiration

Punam Farmah watches White Tiger, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, available on Netflix.

15 June 2021

There is always one. In every generation. A special one. We are not talking about Buffy here, or even Jose Mourinho. We are talking about a plucky young man, by the name of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), who has aspirations that nothing will crush. Nothing will stand in the way of this fierce and courageous ‘white tiger’, as he strives to climb out of a fait accompli… one that would have him slave away in a dead-end family business, with no room to grow or even get rich.

Getting rich is the central theme of White Tiger. It marries, to form a double helix, between two worlds that are vividly constructed in the film. The world of the rich, powerful and extremely well-connected contrasts harshly with the those ‘caught in the rooster coop’; the world of those who live in abject poverty, may not necessarily be able actualise their potential and, are at times, at the mercy of those who really do have more money than sense.

As depicted in the film Lion (Dev Patel), getting rich is the doorway for those in the latter camp; to escape and to actualise potential. It is the doorway to power, and not being at heel to those who could easily swat you away like a fly. There is a clear difference between the haves and have nots, a theme that Bollywood doesn’t really focus on; an industry aimed predominantly towards offering escape. It is also hard to watch this film without having Slumdog Millionaire at the back of your mind – a thought reinforced with a couple of inspired references to that particular film. White Tiger simply gives us a slightly different viewpoint.

Caste and discrimination run alongside the central themes of poverty and aspiration. This is, after all, a film that comments on different levels of society. Caste and discrimination then act as confounding and extraneous variables. You might not control for them, but you also may not be able to. They will, however, still tint the lens through which the world is viewed, and also how high the hill is that you need to climb.

Though we have one man, Balram, at the centre of this story, his journey is not without a family. A family he is charged with supporting; over a dozen of them. There is obligation and responsibility which takes on a whole new slant in the end. Our protagonist moves from one family, onto another – the richer one – his responsibility and obligation alter as he becomes a driver at the beck and call of his master. Master. That word is hard to hear, to see; but echoes the disparity that this film is built upon. There is a third family of a sort; but I won’t offer you a spoiler for that.

The words of Pinky Madam, a strong-willed woman with whom our protagonist forms a connection, are key. ‘I got out’, she says, trying to light a fire of emancipation beneath him. You have to say it as Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Her presence in White Tiger gives the whole thing a lot of clout. The film becomes a little bit more heavyweight to compete with Slumdog Millionaire. Pinky Madam’s encounter with her misogynistic in-laws is uncomfortable to watch, but a brave on-screen representation. She made her escape as child, but as an adult still has to face the duality of being bi-cultural. As a fellow South Asian woman, I salute her. Chopra Jonas is visible, present and standing up to attitudes in dire need of being challenged.

The ending made me sit up and blink. I had one of those ‘hold on, wait a minute’ moments. I didn’t see it coming, it made smile. I was reminded to never assume and always think twice. I’m tempted to carry out another hypothesis test. I might even go and read the book.

- Reviewed by Punam Farmah, MBPsS MBACP; Counsellor at Red Maple Counselling, Birmingham. Tutor of Counselling at CUCoventry; Psychology and Counselling Distance Learning Tutor at Oxbridge Ltd. T: @Redmaplecounse1, E:[email protected]