Staff Writer Panu Hejmadi attended a captivating conversation on the ‘White Tiger’ film, between director, Ramin Bahrani (CC’96) and Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Hamid Dabashi.
Released in 2008, Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, White Tiger— almost immediately became one of the most widely read works of Indian literature. I read White Tiger for the very first time on the day that my middle-school librarian decided that she would finally let me pick up a book from the “grown-up” section. Doe-eyed, and all of thirteen years old— I remember being inexplicably afraid of the reality that the book constructed for me, while also being acutely aware of the fact that that scary, scary fictional world was one of the most accurate pictures of the India I know. I came back to the book, over and over again through the years— and wound up reading it exactly five times from cover to cover. When I found out that this incredible novel was going to be adapted into a Netflix film, I found myself excited but also secretly very anxious to find out if the film version would do justice to the original novel’s brutality, stark humor, and grimness.
Ramin Bahrani’s film blew my mind, and the minds of even Adiga’s most loyal readers. The Netflix film managed not only to stay authentic to its source text but also to infuse the visual translation with a vivid life of its own.
The film, White Tiger, follows the life and revelations of the character of Balram Halwai as he learns to break a generational trap of servitude. The opening shot of the film is a vignette of Balram’s life in the light— we see him already having made his way to the top of the social food-chain, and we’re left in a great deal of suspense about how he managed to get there. The movie takes us through his journey, the voice of a newly successful, suave, smooth-spoken Balram nudging us forward.
While the discussion was deeply profound and intellectual, there was a sense of warmth and familiarity that pervaded the rigid structure of the dry Zoom conference boxes— perhaps entirely on account of the close relationship that the two speakers shared. As they reveal, while discussing Bahrani’s cinematic influences in creating the White Tiger— a big one was Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray—Professor Dabashi taught Bahrani while he was an undergraduate at Columbia College, and the two frequented screenings of Ray’s films together while they were being held in New York City. They remain colleagues (Bahrani is an associate professor of film in the Columbia School of Arts), close friends— and maintain a mentor-mentee relationship to the extent that Professor Dabashi reads and reviews all of Bahrani’s first drafts and watches all of his final cuts. In this way, Professor Dabashi’s familiarity with Bahrani’s work and process allows the audience to hear two immediate perspectives into Bahrani’s interpretation of The White Tiger— and the casual nature of the conversation further does justice to the easygoing tone of The White Tiger, itself.
One of the salient features of the White Tiger novel was the manner in which it effectively destabilizes the West, and centres around experiences in the world of the “yellow man and the brown man”. The entire novel was written in the form of seven letters from Balram to the Chinese Premier (at the time), Wen Jiabao. Bahrani says that he found that structural premise to be very interesting and of the decision to keep the trope in the movie he says: “When else am I going to get to make a movie where the main character is writing letters to Wen Jiabao?” In the movie’s production too, he made the active choice of only bringing four crew members from outside of India, whilst recruiting the rest of his crew while on location. The entire movie was filmed in India, with several scenes featuring non-actors so as to retain the most heightened degree of verisimilitude.
By the end of the conversation I found myself wildly excited to log right back onto my Netflix account and rewatch Bahrani’s White Tiger all over again— despite the looming prospect of my midterms starting the very next day. Professor Dabashi’s conversation with Director Bahrani was an invigorating take on the White Tiger universe. For audience members, the conversation shaped a brilliant interpretation of the popular film while also, allowing them in some capacity— to marvel at the thoughtfulness behind Bahrani’s directorial prowess.
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