There’s a scene in Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s eponymous 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel that drives home the central pledge that tethers a servant to their master in India: dogged devotion.
After Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the New York-returned heir of an affluent Indian family finds out that his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) has abandoned him and decamped to America in the wake of an unforeseen tragedy, he flies into a fit of rage. His anger is predominantly directed at his driver Balram (a sensational Adarsh Gourav), who drove Pinky to the airport. It can be argued that Balram, unaware of domestic tensions between the couple, was simply doing his job. But Ashok chooses to see it as an act of betrayal, as a matter of Balram going “behind his back” and siding with Pinky even though his loyalties should lie foremost with Ashok, his employer. What ensues is a frenzied physical altercation between the two men that eventually culminates into Balram overstepping his boundaries and slighting Ashok.
Over the next two days, all communication ceases between Ashok and Balram. “Had he gone back to America and not told me?,” Balram wonders as he waits to hear back from Ashok, fearful that his indiscretion might have cost him his job. When he finally gathers the courage to show his face to his employer, he finds a grief-stricken Ashok on the floor inebriated, in immediate need of tending. In that moment, the humiliation that Ashok underwent at Ashok’s hands becomes a mere footnote; what takes centrestage is his duty toward serving his master. In the following minutes, it’s as if Balram shifts gears, busying himself to clean up after Ashok like a frantic mother caring for a newborn baby. In a way, this sequence underlines the crucial difference between an employee and a servant: an employee works for someone else, but a servant devotes their life to someone else. If an employee co-exists with their employer, a servant is meant to live for their master. To that end, Indian servants don’t have employers, they are owned.
Released on Netflix last month, The White Tiger is at its heart, a capitalist fable, a reckoning of two Indias encroaching on each other. But told from the perspective of Balram, a poor, lower-caste Bihari hired as a driver for an abroad-returned couple, the film is also a play on the idea of the selfless servant, a trope popularised by Indian pop-culture, in particular Hindi cinema. In Indian society and in depictions in Hindi cinema, a servant has always been identified by their subservience; by their willingness to go out of their way to serve their master at the cost of humiliation or even self-erasure. It’s perhaps why even when servants have been indispensable in innumerable narratives in Hindi cinema, they’ve always existed in the fringes (think Daijaan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… or Kantaben in Kal Ho Naa Ho). That’s not the case in The White Tiger, where Balram is given the reins of the story – what the viewer sees is effectively, his version of the events that drastically alter the course of his life. That’s not just a shift in point of view, but also of a correction of gaze: usually, a servant’s voice is not even one that as a culture, we’re trained to recognise.
In that sense, The White Tiger, although flawed and timid, is an antidote, simply because it is built on excavating the desires of an Indian servant. The politics of devotion as well as its payback forms the crux of the film.
For instance, Bahrani explores the selflessness expected out of servitude through its limitations, which in this case is Balram realising that his duty of serving his master poses a conflict to his own personal aspirations of rising above in life. Most movies usually lead us to believe that domestic freelancers have no option but to live out a life in submission but The White Tiger pokes its needles deep, revealing that in an unbalanced society, it’s easier to take away options from the oppressed than it is to give them rights. The class struggle in the film is then, both personal and political.
To that end, The White Tiger also foregrounds the cruel irony of devotion by crafting itself as a story about payback. Balram turning on Ashok isn’t primed up to be a shock, but instead as an eventuality. The thing about an employer demanding devotion from his subjects is that no display of it will ever be enough for him. In the film, Balram arguably displays the highest form of devotion by agreeing to take blame for a tragedy to save the family from the untoward consequences. Yet, is this devotion that comes to cost him when Ashok blames him for not stopping Pinky from leaving him. If anything, the film shatters a long-held idea that loyalty is the ultimate reward and reframes it as a form of violence.
Watching that scene play out in The White Tiger, I instantly thought of Rohena Gera’s Sir, another 2021 release that revolved around a domestic servant. Although the scope of the film – a tender indictment of the connections lost amid the webs of class hierarchy – is entirely different from The White Tiger, the language of devotion is exactly the same. The film tells the story of Ratna (Tilottoma Shome), a young, widowed help who works at the house of Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), her America-returned employer who is recovering from a wedding cancelled at the last-minute. Throughout the course of Sir, the viewer is privy to Ratna’s obedience from time to time: she is thoughtful, agreeable, and ultimately selfless. But there’s one scene that captures the full extent of her devotion.
Despite being vegetarian, Ratna cooks mutton curry for Ashwin in a bid to lift up his spirits. It becomes evident that this is the first time she is cooking meat: she maintains a distance from the mutton even as she prepares it, takes ample care to taste only the curry, and keeps referring to a handwritten recipe to confirm that the dish is on the right track. Yet, her diligence, the very act of going against her beliefs, ends up accounting for nothing when Ashwin comes back home and informs Ratna that he is not hungry and won’t be having dinner.
Ultimately, devotion is yet another thankless form of labour, a truth that as The White Tiger proves, the Indian upper-class would rather not have their servants find out.