A dilapidated rural village, an intelligent protagonist achieving success against all odds, saccharine reflections on our common humanity: these are the increasingly recognizable ingredients of the Western genre of Indian poverty porn. Some are found in The White Tiger, the film adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize–winning novel, directed by Ramin Bahrani and now streaming on Netflix. But instead of softly focusing on sentimentality and plucky resolve, The White Tiger turns a hard gaze on India’s unforgiving social stratification and what it takes to break through it. Succeeding requires sacrifice of the type widely celebrated in Western capitalism’s concept of entrepreneurship. And Balram Halwai, the film’s slick, suede-suit-wearing protagonist, is an entrepreneur at heart.
“In the old days, when India was the richest nation on Earth, there were one thousand castes and destinies,” Balram says in voice-over near the start of the film, narrating a letter he’s written to China’s premier at the time, Wen Jiabao. “These days, there are just two castes. Men with big bellies and men with small bellies. And there are only two destinies, eat or get eaten up.” Now a resident of Bangalore, “the Silicon Valley of India,” Balram also admits that the police are looking for him—but he asks not to be judged before he has shared the entirety of his “glorious tale.” That tale begins in Laxmangarh, where as a young boy Balram is recognized for his English literacy and his intellect. His teacher promises to help him get a scholarship at a school far away, in the nation’s capital of Delhi. But Balram’s family needs money, and he is forced to drop out and work in a tea shop, fated to a life of servitude. It’s the destiny of millions of Indians who, Balram says, exist in a “rooster coop”: they passively watch one another get slaughtered, but they’re unable or unwilling to escape.
Balram’s desire to leave the coop is the film’s dramatic catalyst. Learning that the visiting American son of the village landlord needs a driver, he borrows money for driving lessons and then smooth-talks his way into the position. Upon meeting Balram, the son, Ashok, makes a snap pronouncement: “You’re the new India,” he tells Balram, part of the nation’s biggest untapped market, “waiting to surf the web, buy a cell phone, rise up to middle class.” But, he adds, without adequate resources Balram is only “half-baked.” Balram is offended, but he knows it’s true. In India, as he admits in his missive to Jiabao, there are “hundreds of millions of men like me. Open up our brown skulls and look inside with a penlight. You’ll find all these ideas, half-formed, half-correct, all buggering one another, and that is what we live and act on.”