“The White Tiger” is a drama film that was released on Netflix in January this year. It is based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Aravind Agida, which I read about five years ago for my English Literature class during A-levels.
The plot of the movie revolves around Balram, a poor Indian village boy, who tells the story from a very sinister and darkly humourous point of view. It soon becomes evident that Balram is a dark hero, but as the viewer you cannot help but root for Balram. It is almost as if you become complicit in his sinister plan.
One thing that really stood out to me in “The White Tiger” was the imagery of the rooster coop. To fully understand the rooster coop, we need to understand the context in which the movie was set. The movie takes place over the span of three years – from 2007 to 2010. It highlights the caste system in Indian society, which is a system of strict social division based on the family into which one is born. This is illustrated by Balram’s statement that “India is two countries in one: an India of light and an India of darkness”.
Balram is from the “India of darkness”, at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy. The rooster coop is used to represent the cycle of poverty and oppression that entraps these members of the darkness. This is shown by the following quote from Balram:
The greatest thing to come out of this country in its 10,000-year history: the rooster coop. They can see and smell the blood. They know they are next, yet they don’t rebel. They don’t try and get out of the coop. Servants here have been raised to behave the same […] 99.9% of us are caught in the rooster coop. The trustworthiness of servants is so strong that you can put the key of emancipation in a man’s hand and he will throw it back to you with a curse.
From this quote, we can see that the rooster coop is more mental than physical. Sure, there are repercussions for trying to break out of the coop, but the point is that there is even no need for these repercussions in the first place. The underclass have been ingrained with a mentality of servitude, so even if they had the opportunity to escape, they would not. There is something even more unnerving about being chained mentally, as opposed to being chained physically.
SPOILER ALERT: Don’t continue reading if you haven’t watched or read “The White Tiger”, and you intend to.
In the end, Balram does break out of the poverty cycle, but first he has to undergo a mental reorientation. We see his emotions change from subservience and loyalty to his masters, to rage and desire for revenge, and finally determination and quest to be wealthy. Only when he goes through this change of emotions can he muster the courage to “break the shackles of his servitude through an extreme or desperate act”. And his extreme act is killing his employer, Ashok, and using Ashok’s money to start up a business.
Although viewers might be rooting for Balram, there is nevertheless a feeling of dissatisfaction spurred by the realisation that Ashok probably did not deserve his fate. If Balram had killed someone else, say, the Mongoose, then it might have been more acceptable. But that is precisely the point. Nothing about this system is ideal, and viewers are not supposed to feel satisfied. Even more unsatisfying is the fact that Balram’s family members were probably also killed by Ashok’s family in revenge. It is not a pleasant situation, but it is the inevitable result of a system rigged against the majority of the population.
The rooster coop, with its representation of the cycle of poverty and oppression, reminds me of Nigerian society and how some workers are treated.* A while ago, Rita sent me this article with lawyers complaining about how they were treated badly – pretty much like servants – by their employers. And this is even in a profession that is considered to be respectable. If you hear stories of how housekeepers (known as ‘houseboys’ or ‘housegirls’ in Nigeria) are treated, you will be shocked!
But these workers continue to take it because what is their alternative? Nigeria is a country with record high levels of poverty and unemployment, having recently been crowned infamously as the ‘poverty capital of the world’. Against this context, if you manage to get a job in Nigeria, you will not be looking to leave in a hurry.
And so many workers are kept in that cycle of oppression. Granted, the Indian caste system represented in “The White Tiger” might be an extreme example of this oppression, but it nevertheless points out a trend that is common across many societies with a high power distance index, such as Nigeria. So this is what I will talk about in my next blog post in this series on class inequality: an explanation of the concept of power distance, the factors that contribute to power distance, and why I think a high power distance is detrimental to a society.
In a way, Balram’s eventual escape from the poverty trap can also be likened to class revolution in communist ideology. This analogy is made even more stark in the novel, which contains the assertion: “the book of your revolution sits in the pit of your belly, young Indian”. I don’t necessarily consider myself a Marxist or a communist, but I do have some inclination towards socialist ideologies. So at some point I will also make another blog post about class inequality, but this time in the context of a so-called meritocratic society.
More in this series on class inequality: “You Don’t Talk When Elders are Talking”: Exploring Power Distance in Nigerian Society
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*Given that people still ask ignorant questions like “Do Nigerians have bookshops?” or “Do Africans live in mud houses?”, I feel the need to emphasise that this is not the case for every Nigerian worker. There are many people who work under good conditions in Nigeria. I am simply talking about the segment of workers who do not have this privilege.