You know a good story when you see it. As a young-ish reporter looking to dabble in print and photojournalism almost two decades ago, walking around the streets of New Delhi, India, I was on the lookout for a feature article. I could see that a group of street kids horsing around in an underpass of a busy arterial road on a lazy afternoon had the potential for compelling copy and images.
The ragtag group of boys were boisterous, their hollers echoing in the underpass. They had a uniform look—dirty clothes, matted hair, grubby cheeks. But their smiles were irrepressible, their laughter contagious. I remember my incautious approach, my cameras dangling by my side. I just joined their group; they welcomed me with curious eyes. The minute I asked if I could take photos, the boys started posing. One of them, I can recall distinctly, had the mannerism of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan down pat—his wide-legged, arms-outstretched stance, a winking smile on his face. I was laughing along with them as I took the photos. But even as I laughed, I could feel a certain squeamishness building inside me.
What story could I tell? How much of these boys’ lives could I really know in the hour or two I’d spend with them? And more importantly, what would this group of boys get out of it? Even though conversations around privilege and representation weren’t as commonplace back then, many reporters like me still grappled with these questions.
When I first read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger in 2008, after it won the Man Booker prize, it didn’t sit well with me in the same way. Now Ramin Bahrani’s film adaptation of his university chum’s book is on Netflix and those mixed feelings remain.
Full disclosure: Like any good journalist, I too pitched a story about Adiga in 2008. At the time I was freelancing for Canada’s national broadcaster, CBC, and Adiga was supposed to be a guest on one of the flagship shows, Wachtel on the Arts. Since Adiga was going to be in the building anyway, I snagged him for the daily afternoon radio show I was then working on. Adiga was a perfectly pleasant person, and we even cracked a couple of jokes about our respective Indian experiences. As part of programming him, I got a copy of The White Tiger which I read afterwards.
The book uses the narrative device of email correspondence. Over the course of seven letter-writing nights, self-styled entrepreneur Balram Halwai explains to former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao how his fortunes turned—how he transformed from a poor boy in the backwater village of Laxmangarh to a slick businessman in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley.
Born into a family of sweetmakers—ergo, the last name Halwai, which also refers to his caste—Halwai is a smart kid. It’s shown that he would have been able to study his way out of poverty. But his father dies from tuberculosis and his miserly grandmother pulls him out of school to put him to work. He starts out hammering coal chunks and grows up to become a waiter at a tea stall. That’s where Halwai first sees Ashok, his future master. Just returned after studying in New York, with Indo-American wife Pinky in tow, Ashok is learning the ropes of the family business. Halwai shrewdly guesses that Ashok might be his meal ticket out of Laxmangarh and his grandmother’s clutches. After a little wheedling and scheming, Halwai finagles a job as Ashok’s driver. Although Ashok and Pinky like to think of themselves as progressive, Halwai understands his place in society. While he tries to play by the rules, he always knew the game was rigged—and eventually comes to understand that his freedom will come at a great cost.
It’s a fine enough premise for a novel. At 276 pages, The White Tiger isn’t a particularly daunting tome. It was a fun read, and reflected certain sections of Indian society with sardonic accuracy. But it wasn’t particularly insightful. In fact, for the most part, I found it frustratingly facile. A complicated concept like caste was mainly invoked for cynical laughs; it didn’t try to understand the structural inequities that have kept generations of lower caste and untouchable Indians on the margins.
Halwai’s voice irritated me. On the one hand, Halwai’s insouciance and reckless ambition was thrilling. On the other, I couldn’t shake a feeling of disingenuousness. There was a smarminess in Halwai’s narration. Pat observations about his circumstance, or witticisms about the people in his orbit started to feel false. Who was Halwai speaking to exactly? Eventually you begin to feel that the intended audience for the novel is the same group of people that Halwai dismisses with contempt at the outset: White Americans.
Bahrani’s adaptation of Adiga’s novel is a perfectly serviceable film. It’s fairly taut. The opening scene throws you in media res: Halwai’s life comes crashing to a halt after a joyride on New Delhi streets. The film then sets out to explain what comes before and after, going through Halwai’s story at a pretty fast clip with the hip-hop heavy soundtrack adding to the urgency. However, there are a few moments of insight where the action slows down and the camera zooms in to actually focus on Adarsh Gourav, who plays Halwai with depth. However, just like the book, Halwai’s voiceover is grating. As a viewer you don’t end up empathizing with Halwai when you’re being told how to feel in neat little observations. Those sarcastic rejoinders take away from brief flashes of understanding—this especially struck me when Halwai arrives at a cliché through Pinky: “You were looking for the key for years. But the door was always open.”
The White Tiger also stars several Bollywood celebrities, including Rajkummar Rao (Ashok), Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Pinky) and Mahesh Manjrekar (The Stork). Only Rao has some meat to his role, which he performs well enough—but just like his meandering accent, Rao doesn’t seem fully committed to the character of the America-returned, sort-of-spoilt-brat prodigal son. In fact, it was the hip-hop song playing as part of the closing credits of the film that drew me in the most—that felt the most authentic. Called “Jungle Mantra,” it’s written by Divine, a famous Indian rapper who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, with features from Vince Staples and Pusha T. It’s got the energy and simmering rage of someone who’s been living on the fringes:
This isn’t to completely dismiss Bahrani’s The White Tiger. It’s less sentimental and way edgier than Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire without feeling exploitative. It’s a relatively smart film about contemporary and aspirational India, especially for those who otherwise associate India with colorful Bollywood numbers or chai and golden lattes. But for more meaningful explorations of issues such as caste, class or corruption in India, there are scores of Indian films I can point you towards—ranging from arthouse (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Ardh Satya, New Delhi Times) to commercial cinema (Rang De Basanti, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Gully Boy).
As for those kids I mentioned at the outset…I never did write that story. By the time I took my last shot, I knew I wasn’t going to file a story on the crew. The boys had asked me if I could give them a copy of the photos I’d taken of them. Those were still the days of film cameras, and it took me a week to get the roll developed. When I went back to the underpass, that group of boys was nowhere to be found.
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.