Based on the 2008 Booker prize-winning novel, Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, the film follows the same epistolary form as the novel, which starting off with a letter to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
It’s 2007. Two people, later to be revealed as Ashok, Balram’s master, and Ashok’s wife, Pinky, are seated in the passenger and driver’s seat. The two are drunk as Pinky drives through the empty and dark road. She almost hits a cow, laughs it off as the camera transitions to Balram’s point of view as he looks to a homeless family getting ready to sleep on the roadside. As he looks to the front again, a small figure appears in front of the car and Balram screams to Pinky to stop the car.
A voiceover of Balram replaces the scene as he apologizes to the Premier for starting his story incorrectly. We see Balram in present day India, and unlike the previous scene, Balram has grown a moustache and a noticeable potbelly. He is watching the television as it announces the upcoming trip of the Premier to India. He continues his letter claiming that though India does not have “drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality”, it certainly breeds the world’s rising entrepreneurs. However, Balram continues and confesses that he wasn’t always a successful businessman- he was a servant once and he is willing to tell his story, “free of charge” and by doing so also reveal “the truth about India.”
In the dusty village of Laxmangarh, we see a young Balram watch his father get beaten by the landlord, “The Stork” because he is unable to pay his monthly rent. In school, Balram has been offered a scholarship to study in a better school at Delhi as he is told that he has a prodigal mind and like a “white tiger”, his gift only comes once in a generation. However, as we saw, due to the worsening poverty of his family, Balram’s grandmother forces him to quit school entirely to work in a tea shop in the village sweeping the floor and chopping wood.
Years pass, Balram’s father has died of tuberculosis and his brother has been forced into marriage by his grandmother. Balram compares life in India to a “Rooster Coop” metaphor. Balram equates the underclass of India with roosters in a coop, loudly but submissively accepting their fate while watching the slaughter of the other roosters. He half-amusedly admires the roosters and argues that the lower-class servants of India, like the animals, should submit to their fate and commit to servitude and loyalty.
The scene lights up as The Stork and his son, Ashok, visit the village. At first sight, Balram believes that Ashok is “the master for me [him]” and he follows them to their home in search for a job as a servant. The Stork lets Balram in once he says that he is from Laxmangarh and not a Muslim. The Stork tells him that they are in need of a second driver for Ashok who has recently returned from America. Balram does not know how to drive but convinces his grandmother to give him the money for driving lessons in exchange for the majority of his future earnings. When he’s hired and moves into the Stork’s family compound in Delhi, he’s deferential and obedient, taking on more tasks and continuously belittling himself to secure the family’s approval. Balram cleans and beats rugs, he sleeps on the floor of a leaky basement, rubs oil into the Stork’s calves, and argues that he deserves a fraction of the already very small salary they offer.
However, Balram knows that he will always be the second-in-rank servant unless he rids of his “competition”. He investigates the number one servant for any suspicious activity and finds out that his superior is Muslim. Despite witnessing the sight of the first servant’s starving family, Balram does not hesitate to deliver his findings to The Stork.
Balram’s first job as the primary driver is to bring Ashok and his Indian American wife, Pinky, to Delhi. Ashok always carries around a red bag which is revealed to be bribe money for Indian politicians so that the upcoming election results in favor of his family. In the drive to Delhi, Ashok and Pinky talk about how different India is from America, praising Balram of having been immersed in “the real India”. They tell Balram to call them by their first names, not “master” or “madam” and nearly gets frustrated with Balram’s obsequious behavior. However, as the movie progresses, we become aware that Pinky and Ashok are inconsistent with their attitudes towards Balram. Ashok mostly carries on unfettered by the injustice done on his so-called chauffeur especially when his father physically and verbally assaults Balram or when he quips at Balram’s ignorance of the Internet and the way he pronounces certain words.
On Pinky's birthday in Delhi, she and Ashok get drunk and keeps Balram in the backseat because Pinky wants to drive. The scene is the first that we saw in the film and in the moment that Balram yells to Pinky, the audience sees that what Pinky has hit is a child, mostly likely from one of the homeless families in the roadside. The Stork's family manipulates Balram into signing a confession, so that Pinky and Ashok can get away with the murder and though on the outside he does not seem so, Balram now knows the vile truth behind a servant’s relationship with their master but still does not believe Ashok as part in it. Pinky leaves for New York, shaken by the event and claiming that Ashok and his family are cruel for treating Balram inhumanely. When Pinky leaves, Balram takes it upon himself to emotionally support Ashok. Ashok comes down to where Balram stays in Delhi, a cockroach ridden room with a rusty toilet and a sink. Ashok confesses that he has wanted to pursue music and Balram responds by telling him that he has always enjoyed singing. The two sing together and Ashok propose that they start a band together. The scene of brotherhood is interrupted when Balram asks himself, “Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love, or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?” However, before Balram can know the answer for sure, he soon finds outs that Ashok has hired another servant to replace him. As if a switch has flicked, all that occupies Balram from then on is only the feeling of betrayal.
Balram's grandmother unexpectedly sends one of Balram’s younger nephews because they can no longer care for him. Balram, now with another mouth to feed and with the knowledge that his master has decided to replace him, murders Ashok and steals a red bag with four million rupees, fleeing the city with his nephew despite this meaning that The Stork will brutally kill his entire family.
Re-establishing himself in Bangalore, Balram begins a private taxi service called “White Tiger Drivers” for tourists or workers. He treats his drivers as employees, not as those below him and takes personal and financial responsibility for any accidents under his employ. As he signs off the email, Balram reveals that he has also changed his name, to Ashok Sharma.
Even in the final moments of the film, the audience is unaware of what Balram wants. The movie’s moments of exploring desire, the sincere kind, faintly glimmer through the odd friendship between Ashok and Balram. We often see Balram eavesdropping, sneakily peeking through reflections, the rear-view mirror of the car as he drives Ashok around or through the many mirrors of the luxurious hotel rooms that his masters stay in. We’re not ever allowed access to Balram’s thoughts, wants or needs and it is likely that Balram does not know himself. He has trapped himself inside the rooster coop.
The ending scene breaks the fourth wall in successfully displaying that there are no boundaries between the movie’s reality and ours. There is no good in “The White Tiger”- not in the rich or poor. The White Tiger rejects such conventional attitudes of storytellers in associating the poor with immaterial kindness, acts of righteousness, or being more in touch with human intimacies. The lower-class characters do not disregard the caste system nor do they act with kindness or empathy as Ashok or his family does. There are many questions that can be raised with Bahrani’s film, but there are certainly no easy answers that can be said in response.