Men With Big Bellies And Men With Small Ones: A Review Of The White Tiger

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

In 2010, Aravind Adiga, author of the book The White Tiger decided to adapt his Booker Prize-winning novel into a movie. But it wasn’t until 2019 that it was produced into a Netflix drama starring Adarsh Gourav as Balram Halwai, Rajkumar Rao, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

Written and directed by Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani, the adaptation was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards.

Well-received, the picaresque novel made it to the New York Times Bestseller List. Adiga aimed to capture the lives of the have-nots and the class struggle in India. Using a narrative style, the book and the movie start with the protagonist, Balram, narrating his life story in a letter addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Born into a lower caste family in Gaya district of Bihar, Balram is a smart child but like many of his status, he was pulled out of school at a young age. It made him a half-baked Indian. While in school, he exhibited his academic promise and got the name the white tiger from an inspector who wanted a real education for him.

India is two countries in one, he writes. An India of Light and an India of Darkness. Balram enlightens the Premier about the plight of the people from the India of Darkness. Through depictions of poverty and hardship in the village, Aravind Adiga brings to light the struggles, hardship, and ambitions of Balram.

Balram’s escape from Laxmangarh transpires as he gets a job to be a driver for the village landlord’s son, Ashok, who is played by National Film Award recipient Rajkumar Rao. Having returned from the US, Ashok has a broad perspective on life and is unbothered by things like caste which is paramount to his family as well as Balram’s.

In Balram’s view there are only two castes in India – men with big bellies and men with small bellies, and two destinies – eat or get eaten up.

Balram’s experience in Delhi is an eye-opener. Seeing the city for the first time astonishes him. He also witnesses corruption in the political world when he drives Ashok to bribe ministers so that his family evades paying tax.

When Priyanka Chopra Jonas learnt that the adaptation of the book was in progress, she reached out to the producers to offer her services to executive produce, and in the process landed the role of Pinky, Ashok’s capricious wife.

In the book, Pinky is frequently rude to Balram but in the movie, a different side of her character is exposed in scenes where she helps and defends him. She is oftentimes appalled at Ashok’s family treatment of Balram.

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

Mrs. Chopra Jonas explains that her character is a “catalyst of change for Balram”.

In the early hours of Pinky’s birthday, as she is recklessly driving in the empty streets of Delhi, she runs over a child and flees the scene. Worried that the accident might damage their reputation, Ashok’s family forces Balram to confess that he was the one driving alone that night. Flustered, he realizes that he is now at their disposal.

A troubled Pinky then flees to the US leaving her husband broken-hearted and relying evermore on Balram’s service.

The rich and poor divide, the upper and lower caste dichotomy of mainland Indian society is delivered exquisitely by Aravind Adiga. He skillfully uses analogies and metaphors to describe the lives of the haves and the have-nots. When Balram is forced to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, it is an instance of being eaten up by men with big bellies. Adiga also uses a rooster coop metaphor to describe Balram’s desire to break free from servitude to become an entrepreneur. He believes that one cannot escape the rooster coop unless one sacrifices everything to cross over to the India of Light.

Balram’s desire to be a free man and a successful entrepreneur ultimately leads him to kill his master, steal his money, and flee to Bangalore. He avoids getting caught and starts a successful taxi service. Convinced that he has done what many couldn’t by escaping the hopelessness of the Darkness, he plans to open a school for future white tigers like him.

In spite of the changes to secondary storylines and a whitening of Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s Character, the movie manages to still stay faithful to the spirit of the novel.

The White Tiger the movie accurately portrays India’s vast wealth disparity and the socio-economic conditions of people from rural India. And credit must be given for that.

Author: Kelly Lyngdoh

Kelly Lyngdoh is an Editorial Intern. She has a B.A (Honours) in Political Science from St. Anthony’s College, Shillong. She’s an avid reader and enjoys her shows, movies and baking.

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