The Moral Complexities of The White Tiger Movie

The Moral Complexities of The White Tiger Movie
Reader Rating0 Votes

The other day, Calax wandered in from out of the cold. He appeared on the discord chat server and was like… Taylor. THE. WHITE. TIGER… and then like a mist, disappeared back into the cold. It was the weirdest thing. And I was so intrigued, I immediately started watching the movie and couldn’t stop. The White Tiger is a 2021 Netflix movie from India – and it talks about the disparity of wealth inherent in the country and one poor driver that is determined to break out of his current circumstances. It’s a fascinating philosophical study on the idea of wealth, poverty, and even murder. Intrigued yet? Alright, let’s do this – the moral complexities of The White Tiger movie.

And while I was riveted to this movie… I had numerous issues with it. But it’s the issues that I had that made the movie so perfect. If that makes any sense at all. It will in time, just give me a minute. But, before you continue reading – you can only continue on if you’ve watched the movie already. Heck, it’s right here on Netflix… watch it right now, and then continue reading.

The White Tiger Walkthrough

At the opening of the film, Balram Halwai is forward enough to email the premier of China, Wen Jiabao, in order to setup a meeting. Over the course of the movie, Balram relates to the premier of China the story of his life, and his belief that the yellow and the brown people of the earth were ripe to inherit the planet. He wants the premier to know that the Indian servant class are stuck in a constant state of slavery. Will they ever be free?

As a child, Balram, because of his amazing abilities in reading and speaking English, is offered a scholarship to a school in Delhi. Better yet, he is considered a ‘white tiger’ because he is a once-in-a-life-time student. But, Balram’s hopes are dashed when his father is incapable of paying the debts that he owes the village landlord. And, because of that, Balram is forced to work, breaking rocks. One day, Balram’s father dies of tuberculosis even though Balram took the man to see a doctor 2 days travel away (the doctor never showed).

Eventually, Balram hopes to become a chauffeur for the village landlord’s son, Ashok. Ashok has returned from the United States. Ashok and his wife Pinky (Ashok’s American wife) take on Balram as their driver. But it’s clear that if Balram were to ever escape from his servitude, not only would he be murdered for his fleeing, but his entire family would also be murdered. It is this that Balram equates to the chicken coop that all of the lower caste people in India are trapped in. While free, they are not free… trapped by a fear of a larger system that will crush them completely if given the opportunity.

When Ashok and Pinky move to Delhi, the primary driver was fired (who is secretly Muslim) and Balram ordered to go instead of him. Notice how Balram is learning the system, and doing what he has to in order to succeed? Now, Ashok is going to Delhi in order to bribe politicians in order to keep from having to pay taxes. And it is Balram who takes Ashok from one appointment to the next. Balram will learn from the best! Interestingly, Pinky and Ashok treat Balram with respect – almost like he is a member of their family. Which, is in stark contrast to the way everyone else in the lower casts of India are treated. Regularly they are beaten. Regularly they are ridiculed. But Ashok and Pinky don’t expect Balram to scurry around on their behalf. They really are quite kind to him. Which makes this next bit even worse.

On Pinky’s birthday, they go out to celebrate. Ashok and Pinky get drunk, and they force Balram to let Pinky drive. (This is the opening scene of the movie actually.) Which, morally, is a fairly important detail to understand. And as they are laughing and driving together at 3am, Pinky hits a young child and kills it. Balram successfully convinces Ashok that they should leave before someone sees them. But the next morning, Ashok’s father forces Balram to sign a confession that he was driving the previous night. Heck, they even got Balram’s grandmother to endorse the confession! At the end of the day, no one is charged… but it causes Balram to see very clearly what is happening here. Balram understands that he is disposable trash to Ashok’s family. Worse, he realizes that Ashok actually is considering replacing Balram with a new driver. And Balram is acutely aware that if that happens he will die in the gutters of India. There is no other hope for him. And knowing this, Balram begins stealing from his master. He uses the car for taxiing others around town. He sells Ashok’s gas. He defrauds Ashok with fake repair invoices. He’s determined to figure out a way to survive even if Ashok gets rid of him. After all, Balram has learned from the best of them.

A few days later, Pinky wakes Balram in order to return to New York. She is done with the way the family treats her, treats Balram, and is so stuck in their chauvinistic ways. As a result, Ashok was extraordinarily angry with Balram for his giving Pinky a ride to the airport. But she gave him 9300 rupees – why 9300? Why not 10,000? – for his help. And 9300 is basically enough for 3 months wages… so we know he is making around $40 a month. (A MONTH!) And after Pinky disappears Balram starts going backwards palpably in favor with Ashok. He is beaten for donating to a beggar. He is sent a nephew from his grandmother to look after. Worse, his grandmother is going to marry him off, and if he doesn’t consent to the marriage she will just ship the young girl his direction to meet him there in Delhi. And as the walls are closing in, Ashok prepares to pay a $4million ($50,000) rupee bribe to the new socialist leader.

To escape from the chicken coop that he is trapped in, Balram murders Ashok by slitting his throat, and steals the bribe money. $4 million would be the equivalent of 104 years of his chauffeur’s salary… if you are keeping track. And, in a moment of conscience, Balram goes back for his nephew, and then flees the city. Eventually he heads to Bangalore, and starts up a taxi service for the enormous IT companies arriving in the city. He uses a large portion of the stolen money in order to have all the other taxi services put in jail for a lack of licenses. And as a result he becomes wealthy in his own right. He empowers his employees, and when they make a mistake like killing a pedestrian, he takes ownership himself, and pays the family of the child that is killed and hires the boy’s brother to drive for him. He gets his nephew an education. But he realizes that his family probably was murdered as a result of his running away. And as the movie ends, we learn that Balram has changed his name to Ashok.

A Few of my travel photos to Manila, Port-au-Prince, Adis Abbaba, and Lima

Poverty and Developing Countries

I have only made a layover in India on my way from Africa to the Philippines – so I literally no nothing about this particular country. But I do know quite a bit about the chains of poverty and the horrors of inequality that happen around the world. Going and visiting other countries is one thing… but going and visiting in the homes of the world’s poorest of the poor will change you. I know it changed me having visited with such lovely people in such mind-altering terrible places. I remember one time, having just visited with a family in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the world, and coming out, meeting a neighbor who sarcastically offered to tour his house for money. So I took them up on it. They were shocked… but I went with them into their house, and told them how fantastic their home was and that I was very honored to visit. It was a short term shack built as temporary shelter by WHO almost ten years prior. There were tethered chickens, and running hamsters in the kitchen (cuy), and an open pit of coal. They washed up in a massive 30 gallon plastic container (no idea where the water came from). And we sat and hung out; it was really amazing. I learned about what they did for work (part-time work for a local backpack factory) and learned about their love for football. I tucked away money on one of their shelves and also gave the originally indignant individual cash as we parted. Let’s just say I can’t imagine trying to make it in that situation. Just can’t even imagine it. And to be able to walk into their home and meet them and talk to them? What an honor. But I also get it that their neighbors, and those neighbor’s neighbors hated me, with a passion of a billion suns, I imagine.

The Ethics and Morality Lessons of The White Tiger

This movie has decidedly good things happening here. For example… Pinky and Ashok treated Balram like a human being – at times. They also had moments where they even treated him like family. They gave him advice and spoke into his life. Balram, as a result, was able to better himself (cleaned his teeth, stopped scratching his crotch, you get the idea.) and because of that, saw the coop he was in and took the initiative to “leave” his confines.

And yet… If there are philosophy professors out there that are looking for a perfect movie for discussion in their class about exactly what humans shouldn’t do – might I recommend the movie The White Tiger?!? Because this movie is wrong from beginning to end. Let’s review, the Stork, the landlord of the Indian town, bilked owners for rent. He also put families into slavery to recoup “losses.” Balram gets his fellow driver fired for being a Muslim. Ashok bribes officials to avoid taxes (two different moral failings in one fell swoop). Pinky and Ashok run from the scene of a manslaughter. Ashok’s family forces Balram to lie and “confess” to having murdered the child in the street. Balram stole money from his master. Balram murdered Ashok and stole $50k in bribe money. He put other taxi drivers out of business to establish his own new company.

A couple months ago I reviewed a movie called Nuevo Orden (New Order), a Mexican movie that talked about an uprising of the poor against the rich. That movie blew me away because of the scale of it all. The Mexican people stood up to the inordinately rich people that had been abusing Mexico, and the poor among them for so many years. And those people stood up, and revolted. I opined that it was only a matter of time before there was another massive reallocation of wealth on planet earth as had been done before during situations like the French Revolution, plagues, wars… etc., etc. (Here’s a great read on the topic over at The Atlantic.) I even considered writing a fictional book about the 98% uprising and calling the world to upheaval. (Think a siege on Jeff Bezos home compound, Elon Musk’s house… and a world wide release of their bank account contents). [Don’t let Mark Zuckerberg off either – CY]

It isn’t just. It just isn’t. The way we have built borders, and walls, and gated communities in order to keep the wealth in. And yeah, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. And this movie really points this all out, just how horrible the system really is. And yet here we are. But no matter how unjust one is treated… it never, never, never justifies murder. Balram murdered Ashok, and an argument could be made that he also murdered the rest of his family as a result. Right? And all for what? $50k and a bribe that helped establish his own company? Okay. But the moral weight of that is just untenable. That Balram-come-Ashok has murdered 20, 30, 40 people in order to get his “freedom”? And that now, now he is happy? No. You and I could debate, you get that lectern —–> And I’ll take this on over there <—- and I will wipe you off the stage if you believe that Balram is justified in his actions. He was not justified from day one. But I will give you the fact that he was wronged from the day that he was born. He was wronged every day of his life. But nothing he went through justified his murderous rage and murderous impulse. And this has nothing to do with my trying to keep Balram in his place. Because I also think equally wrong was Pinky and Ashok, who murdered a child and pinned it on another innocent individual. Everyone in this movie was wrong. But I’m not going to stand here and accept that Balram was justified. I’m not going to do it.

What do you think? Was Balram justified? Let’s go. I’m ready… let’s dance, you and me!

Edited by: CY