Righting the Wrongs: Human Rights in 'The White Tiger'
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The White Tiger, the recently released Netflix film by Rahmin Bahrani is a gripping adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man-Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, published in the year 2008. The irony is that the movie was released on one of the most expensive streaming platforms in the country when the central theme revolves around emancipation from class divide and inequality. The movie’s protagonist, Balram Halwai, played by Adarsh Gourav, is a classic example of the rags to riches tale of modern India. Halwai belongs to an underprivileged class of the society and lives in the village of Laxmangarh, where his father works as a rickshaw puller, his brother works at a tea stall, and he is forced to give up his educational scholarship at a very young age, in order to contribute more to his family-owned tea stall. Nevertheless, Halwai misses no opportunity to break out of Laxmangarh and secures a job as a chauffeur with the Stork’s son, Mr. Ashok.
In Righting Wrongs, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak contends “Human Rights is not only about having or claiming a right, but it is also about dispensing these rights. The idea of human rights, in other words, may carry within itself the agenda of a kind of social Darwinism—the fittest must shoulder the burden of righting the wrongs of the unfit—and the possibility of an alibi.”
A close reading of this contention would suggest that the one who claims human rights, here the underprivileged can be the dispenser of rights and if they are the dispenser of human rights, then it gives them the chances to easily work towards their emancipation. This is not to misunderstand, and think that the ‘underprivileged’ must shoulder the responsibility of claiming and dispensing rights for themselves and others, but to analyse how these rights might be dispensed by them while also re-imagining their course of development. In the course of this analysis, Halwai represents the weaker class.
Thus, this article questions the means and ways by which Halwai attempts to right the wrongs for himself, and if it was ethical to do so. It also analyses the questions of Halwai’s character being influenced by the virtues of modernisation and globalisation and the ways he adopts to break out of underdevelopment, but is modernisation really a way out of poverty, or is it a road to another form of impoverishment?
The Central Premise
Balram’s narrative in the movie begins with him writing an email to the then Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, where he contrasts the two Indias - the India of ‘light’ and the India of ‘darkness’. Presently, he’s a successful entrepreneur of a taxi firm in Bangalore, but the story goes way past; tracing his oppression, his experiences with class divide and inequality, the inexplicable servitude towards his Master Ashok and Pinky Madam, and finally his roguish criminal acts.
Being an opportunist, Balram leaves no stone unturned to secure a job as a chauffeur and thus begins to identify the nuances of class divide and inequality in the Stork’s family. He explains how he was earlier held back from going against his masters and his only ‘dharma’ was to serve them, but he soon learns that his master only cares for himself. This is made apparent in many incidents, one of which involves gaslighting and forcing Halwai to confess to a crime that he was not guilty of.
He soon finds the opportunity to make his own moves towards breaking out of the shackles of the class divide. He decides to kill his master Ashok, steal money from him, and use it as capital to establish his new firm in Bangalore. Finally, he bribes policemen to clean his image for the murder.
It is this morally questionable act that elevates him to a ‘higher class’ and helps him break out of the shackles of the class divide. Thus, the questions that arise from the course of his actions towards his master are; one, is it ethical for a subaltern to commit an act of rigorous violence to achieve emancipation and two, was this his only viable option to climb the social ladder?
To answer these questions, one should turn towards the ideas of underdevelopment that Bahrani tries to portray in the film.
The Rooster Coop- A Metaphor for the Class Divide
To explain the class inequality between the rich and the poor in our country, Halwai uses the metaphor of the ‘Rooster Coop’. “The greatest thing to come out of this country... is the Rooster Coop. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers...They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”
He explains to us how the coop is a symbol of two forms of underdevelopment for the poor-one in which the rich try to torture and profit from the poor and the other in which the poor trample on each other in order to get to the top.
In an extended metaphor, one can understand from this analogy that the butcher, who slaughters the hens, is described as the ‘richer class’, and the hens in the coop as the ‘subaltern class’. In this divide, the ‘butcher’ is profiting from the situation as he serves them with food and later kills them, the second idea of the poor walking over one another emerges from the roosters feeding on the others, yet not rebelling because they know that there is no way out of this cycle of oppression.
While describing this divide, one can relate it to the theories of global inequality and underdevelopment. This argument holds that Third World countries were deeply exploited and corrupted by Western countries through colonisation. They were politically and economically stagnated for profits, which has led to the current state of the under-developed economies of the Third World. This is also suitable to Halwai’s theme of the ‘brown man’ and the ‘yellow man’, which he further describes as the Indian and the Chinese respectively, trying to uplift themselves over the ‘white man’- whom he describes as the leaders of the Western countries. He remarks how the low levels of development in South Asia were deep-rooted in the oppression by the Western nations, but the present emergence of China and other South Asian economies has challenged the hegemony of the Western states. More intrinsically, the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ can be associated with his ideas of local inequalities between the rich and the poor.
In Halwai’s discourse of the rich oppressing the poor, the sounds of the Global North and Global South divide echo equivalently. The scene where the Stork and the Mongoose force Halwai to sign a legal document reverberates a massive class divide. A representation of privilege also adequately seeps in through the educated and learned wife-Pinky Madam, when she explains the importance of breaking away from the shackles of the class divide to Balram, but throws him under the bus to take the blame for a crime she committed. Her hypocrisy is also reflected when she ignores Balram’s emotions and escapes from the scenes where he is held accountable for her crime. Therefore, in some shape and form, characters like Ashok and Pinky become the upholders of the very system that they are trying to stand up against.
In the second discourse of the poor exploiting the poor, Bahrani looks at a more complex aspect ‘the Indian family’. He recognises that a form of ethic, moral understanding stands for the community and the one who is able to go against this norm, that is, someone ‘who is able to see his family destroyed’, will be able to break out of the rooster coop. In doing so, Halwai goes against the ethics and morality which ascertain his ways of following ‘modernised ways’ to lead towards development.
Halwai’s ways of Breaking the Coop-Towards Modernization
According to Sankaran Krishna, the modernisation theory offers a different explanation for global inequality and underdevelopment. It suggests that the Western countries are richer than the non-West because of their ‘rational, self-interested ways to better their own life’. This can be shown through Halwai’s many actions in the movie. The first attribute according to the modernisation theory, is to act in scientific, rather than religious ways. Halwai’s character in the movie portrays a disinterested take on Gods and religion in Indian society. By referring to them as “wealthy politicians", it is clear that he’s not into religion as much as the others.
Simultaneously, one also notices the ways and means by which he perceives the structural orientation of religion in the country, and leaves no opportunity to benefit from it. He’s reasonable enough to ‘pray in front of more gods than the other driver, so as to secure his job with the Hindu boss’ More than his pragmatic takes on religion, Balram also tries to profit out of most situations, thus acting as a rational man displaying business acumen, another popular charac-teristic of modernisation. He also hides petrol bills from his employer and even picks up paying customers to secure capital for himself. When he’s summoned by Ashok, at first, he feels guilty about his wrongdoings, but soon realises how his Master stole so much from him. His rage lies in the sense of injustices committed against him by his Master, and also in the ideas of the rich getting richer day by day.
Based on Halwai’s embodiment of his modernised actions, he also begins to manifest specific physical attributes, while taking the path of development. The film attaches a visual symbolism to Halwai’s ideas of modernization. He begins to follow the ideas of a Westernised entrepreneur, by wearing shirts and pants to his job, along with formal, black, polished shoes.
With all of these actions, Halwai benefits by rising from an impoverished, subaltern individual to a taxi-firm owning entrepreneur. However, this kind of development also comes at a price for him. This brings us to the last question to be examined, did Halwai fairly break from the shackles of the rooster coop, or did he get trapped in the perils of modernisation to become another Ashok?
The Question of Ethics
Halwai’s character saw huge development- through his ‘modernised practices’ and ‘entrepreneurial acumen’, but all of this came at the cost of sacrificing his family and his morality. Within this purview of development, Halwai then finds that he has ‘the choice to do something better than his master’, which is justified through his so-called actions of benevolence: when he bribes a victim’s family and capitalizes on their emotions to hire the younger brother of the victim for the self-interest of his own business. This makes him believe that he is ethically much superior in a master-servant relationship, by saving his employees out of a criminal offence through acts of bribery.
However, when one examines such an act of ‘kindness and benevolence’, one can easily interpret how it is a product of structural capitalism. The act of monetising human emotions and profiting off of them is a new form of suppressing the voice of the oppressed. One can easily predict how Halwai’s motives lead to a form of economic upliftment, dictated by the norms of a free-market system. He reduces the victim’s family to the status of ‘labour and services’, something he can easily profit from. This action not only makes him a perpetrator of the same system that he is trying to break out of, but also makes all his actions towards development null and void.
Human Rights and the White Tiger
Unlike the theory of modernisation, a human rights approach takes a more comprehensive view of development. This approach believes that enhancing one’s civil and political, social and economic, cultural and environmental freedom will help them achieve a level of emancipation. Therefore, Halwai’s narrative of achieving development would not be supported by the Human Rights contenders, as this has resulted in his family’s and Master Ashok’s suffering- through the indirect torture of the former and direct killing of the latter.
However, another question that arises from this debate is the ‘possession of the agency of human rights’. It is only those who have greater power and wealth that typically dominate the basis of human rights, therefore, prescribing to the rich man’s idea of ethics and morality. One can thus justify Halwai’s actions towards his master, as one for his own development through the ethics defined by the poor, that are not controlled by the rich.
Although Halwai’s sense of ethics seems uneasy from the perspectives of human rights and development, they make significant sense when looked at from an egalitarian point of view. He tries to secure his socio-economic, civil and political rights, by adopting his own praxis of ethics. Thus, one can conclude that human rights and theories of development may not overlap with each other, but they surely recognize one community developing at the cost of the other. Such a form of development can be described as development ‘from below’ and thus an ‘active agency of the oppressed’. Halwai’s narrative of development stems from breaking out of the oppression that he faced because of his masters. In the course of the movie, he decides to let go of all his respect and admiration and recognizes the discrimination that he is subjected to by his masters. Therefore, Halwai’s ways of righting the wrongs were not only valid but also ethical.
Shivangi Sharma (Guest Writer)
I am currently enrolled in an undergraduate program in Political Science, with a minor in
Economics at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University. My interests lie in debating and
researching about public policy, gender studies and international relations. My passion towards gender studies has led me to join initiatives that are actively involved in working towards Women development in rural and urban India. In the past, I have worked with various ground level research projects with the Ministry of Women and Child Development and Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi. Currently, I’m also working as a Student Researcher with Women For Politics, under which we aim to create a positive discourse about political representation of Women in South Asia. I have a keen interest in working towards Gender Issues and therefore like to volunteer my time towards generating discourse about gender and politics in society.
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