‘The White Tiger’: Taking a deeper look into India’s caste system

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I was initially intrigued by Netflix’s newest fiction film “The White Tiger” by its stellar reviews: 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. This film, directed by Ramin Bahrani, delves into the hardships and anger of India’s underclass. The main character, Balram Halwai, takes the audience along his journey as a driver for an extraordinarily rich family. Viewers see the good, bad and ugly of what it means to be a servant in India and how Halwai overcomes his struggles. 

Halwai grew up in a poor village where he saw his father die and is left with a controlling grandmother. From a young age, he possessed entrepreneurship qualities and knew he would eventually explore that side of himself. Through his quest of personal growth, Halwai decides to make becoming a driver his mission. Assisted by his ability to speak fluent English, Halwai lands himself a job for a prominent family’s son who recently returned from America. 

The audience is able to see firsthand the stark lifestyle difference between castes in India. While Halwai’s master, Ashok, is carrying duffel bags full of money, families are struggling to buy bread and butter for dinner that night. Corruption within the political system allows these families to remain rich beyond imagination and forces the underclass to never prosper. While Halwai is initially very obedient to his master, over time, we see Ashok and his wife Pinky befriend him. They insist on being called by their names instead of Sir or Madam, they refuse to allow Halwai to open the car door and they express outrage when Ashok’s father raises his hands at Halwai. Having come from America, the couple is not used to hitting servants and calling them “sister-fucker.” Over time, the audience is able to see Halwai become confused with his role: Is he a friend or servant? A driver or an acquaintance? Through these moments, Halwai’s outrage over the corruption taking place begins to grow, until he explodes. 

I enjoyed “The White Tiger” because it introduced me to something I don’t know much about. While I am aware of the caste system in India, I didn’t know how dramatically different the treatment between a servant and master was. There were moments where I found myself feeling horrible for Halwai. He was continuously confronted with slaps across the face, sharp curse words and food he prepared being thrown across the room. The one light of hope was Ashok’s wife, Pinky. Played by Priyanka Chopra, Pinky had been living in America since she was 12 and formed strong opinions she was not afraid to share. She embodied a feminist role; she spoke out against Ashok’s father and made her disgust with their treatment of Halwai known. I was able to relate to her Western ideologies and found myself smiling when she would speak up.  

While “The White Tiger” isn’t for everyone, if you’re interested in learning about other cultures and traditions and don’t mind a little violence, then give it a shot. You’ll find yourself invested in Halwai’s journey, and trust me, it’s a crazy one. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

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