Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 20, 2021

The White Tiger

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

There is a striking parallel between Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”, which received an Oscar last year for best picture, and this year’s “The White Tiger” that opens this Friday on Netflix. Both films have been widely described as “class struggle” thematically and both involve servants staging a revolt against their masters. In “Parasite”, a destitute South Korean family finagles their way into a wealthy household as hired help and uses their leverage to become the new masters. In “The White Tiger”, a Dalit named Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) from an even more impoverished family in rural India, maneuvers his way into becoming a chauffeur for Ashok, the son of a powerful landlord who has been oppressing Balram’s fellow villagers.

This is what happens in “Parasite” as well. The paterfamilias of the usurping family becomes a chauffeur after his offspring place soiled panties in the family’s car, thus leading to his dismissal for using the car for his sexual escapades. Balram uses a different ploy. When he discovers that the head chauffeur, who enjoys greater privileges and lords it over him, has been keeping his Muslim identity a secret, he rats him out and takes his place. It should be obvious at this point based on what you have read above that the subaltern characters have little in common with the revolutionary movement. The point of the films is more Hobbes than Marx. Society is a jungle and you have to become a wild animal to succeed.

Unlike the family in “Parasite”, Balram only resorts to the most immoral deed—murder—when he learns that his master has decided to replace him. (Spoiler alert) Driving him to make a hefty cash delivery to a politician, Balram pulls the car to the side of the road and asks Ashok, the privileged son with liberal pretensions, to help him change a tire. When Ashok is bending over examining the tire, Balram plunges a broken bottle into his neck and drives off with the fortune, thus allowing him to leave his Dalit identity behind and starting a new life as an entrepreneur in Bangalore, a city that is flush with leading-edge multinationals. Adopting the corrupt practices of his former employer, Balram pays off the cops to make sure that his bid to start a cab fleet has no competitors. In “The White Tiger”, there is not a soul with principles. That includes a “Socialist” politician who was a beneficiary of the landlord’s bribes. As a sign of the film’s distance from anything resembling true class struggle politics, there is no attempt to ground the character in India’s actual politics. She is basically a cardboard cutout.

Balram’s crime takes place close to the final fifteen minutes of a 125 minute film. Until that point, you have to put up with his obsequious posture vis-à-vis the entire landlord clan. Ashok’s father is a monster who curses Balram for the slightest infraction. I could not help but be reminded of “Gunga Din”, Kipling’s awful poem that was made into an even more awful film.

It was “Din! Din! Din!”
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it,
Or I’ll marrow you this minute,
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!

Like Gunga Din, Balram wears a smile no matter how cruelly he is treated. Besides reminding me of “Gunga Din”, I could not help but think of poor Butterfly McQueen in “Gone With the Wind”. Balram is almost masochistic. Every slap, every curse, every betrayal only results in him promising his masters that he will do better in the future. In some of the more cringeful scenes, Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam (no explanation how she ended up with such an absurd name) defend Balram from his father’s abuses but cap it off by reminding him that they are for the poor and downtrodden. Their liberalism is ultimately undone when they make Balram the scapegoat for a vehicular homicide that took place when Ashok was behind the wheel.

“The White Tiger” was directed by Ramin Bahrani, a film professor at Columbia University whose previous films were as overrated as the latest. Like “The White Tiger”, his first film “Man Push Cart” appeared to be another “class struggle” film featuring a Pakistani character trying to make it as a street vendor in New York. It turned out that Bahrani had something else in mind as I indicated in my review:

“Man Push Cart” sounds like my kind of movie. It is a study of a Pakistani operator of one of those ubiquitous stainless steel coffee and donut carts all over New York, mostly run by recent immigrants from Asia. As someone with a long-standing curiosity about the hidden economic life of this city, I was anxious to see if the film revealed any deep secrets.

Unfortunately, the director Ramin Bahrani, a 30 year old Iranian-American graduate of Columbia University, had very little interest in the underlying social reality. The push cart vendor was merely a convenient symbol for his own existential outlook, borrowed liberally from Albert Camus. In an interview with New York Magazine, Bahrani explained what inspired him to make “Man Push Cart”: “When Bush began to bomb Afghanistan, I realized that all the Afghans I’d ever known were pushcart vendors in New York City. Then I began to think of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, and pushing these carts seemed like a modern-day version.”

To help me get a handle on what was so wrong about the film, I decided to track down a review of the Aravind Adiga novel it was based on, which won the coveted Booker Prize in 2008. I found a review in the London Review of Books that was so good that it almost made the over 2-hour slog through the film worthwhile. Written by UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam and titled “Another Booker Flop”, it is both a review of the novel as well as the underlying social relations that make life miserable for the Dalit. Let me conclude with the final paragraph of Subrahmanyam’s review (contact me privately for a copy liberated from the paywall.)

Some two decades ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote a celebrated essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ At the time, a folklorist is said to have responded: ‘More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?’ We can’t hear Balram Halwai’s voice here, because the author seems to have no access to it. The novel has its share of anger at the injustices of the new, globalised India, and it’s good to hear this among the growing chorus of celebratory voices. But its central character comes across as a cardboard cut-out. The paradox is that for many of this novel’s readers, this lack of verisimilitude will not matter because for them India is and will remain an exotic place. This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down.

5 Comments »

  1. Like so many conservatives, you have a fantastic idea of what Marxism and Socialism are. Might want to actually read a book or two on it instead of getting your info from a YouTube video. This film is simply about how democracy can be perverted to be a cover for feudalism just like all political structures can be. And yes, usually the only way to get out of that system is to kill the king. If you didn’t have the sensibilities of a the My Pillow Guy, you might get that. I think you should stop being a critic and start working on that “Atlas Shrugged” adaptation you always wanted to do. Hack.

    Comment by Desmond Fizzbonhonus — February 3, 2021 @ 3:35 pm

  2. It was Pinky who was behind the wheel. And like all good (US) Americans, they piss-off out of the country rather than stay and be held accountable for what they have done.
    Perhaps Pinky should have claimed diplomatic immunity because she was related to a CIA agent-or was one herself..
    So whether it’s a small kid in India or a teenager in Northampton, life is very cheap for the rich or the US government.
    It seemed to me Balram wanted to stick it to the boss (no pun intended). And he did it in the only way he thought he could.
    Being an immigrant to this country and having grown up with class-consciousness I have always tried to get US workers to stand up for their rights in the places I’ve worked at. What a glorious radical history in the US, but that has been lost forty or more years ago.
    Collective action of the workers is the way, but as we saw in the film, Balram and the other exploited drivers were kept apart.
    It seemed Balram wanted to be a ‘good boss’ in the end. But like all bosses I’ve come across, when I see them smile I see a dagger between their teeth.

    Comment by splodgen — February 6, 2021 @ 9:24 pm

  3. Others have pointed out the factual error in this review (e.g. it was Pinky behind the wheel, not Ashok). But the tone deafness and condescension are beyond the pale. For the record, his name was Ashok, not Akosh. The former is the name of an historical emperor and may even have been chosen as a metaphor (you may want to consult his Wikipedia page before pontificating); the latter a crude malapropism. As for the “absurd name” of Pinky, most Indian children are given silly nicknames, which are used in the intimacy of family even in adulthood. This is actually an important point in the novel, where Balram has an equally vapid nickname (“Boy”, which he alludes to later when he tells Ashok that the poor have so many children that they don’t even give them names). Pinky is actually a common choice (I seem to recall the heroine in “Indian Love Story” was named Pinky). The only real issue is whether this ignorance of condescension is driving the reviewer’s attitude.

    Comment by AS — February 7, 2021 @ 2:19 pm

  4. The name of this blog is Unrepentant Marxist. Thanks for the corrections on the names but the real concern here is the film’s politics, which are faux class struggle. Maybe you could address the question of Hobbes versus Marx, even though I doubt you are familiar with either thinker.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 7, 2021 @ 2:26 pm

  5. You’re being condescending again, or perhaps “unrepentant”. I suspect my knowledge of Marx and Hobbes can stand up against yours, and I agree with you on the ‘faux class struggle’ question. My point was more basic: How can I take anything you say seriously if you can’t be bothered to get your facts straight? Or if you casually dismiss the implications of cultural differences? I’m happy to debate, but I’d rather do with someone who is serious.

    Comment by AS — February 7, 2021 @ 5:40 pm


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