Netflix’s The White Tiger has been generating a lot of buzz since it first made its debut on January 22nd.
The film, based on Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel, is currently ranked as one of the most popular films on Netflix, and even Cardi B took to Twitter to give her opinion of the movie.
However, the film, which is directed by American-Iranian director Ramin Bahrani and produced by actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, has been receiving mixed reviews, especially in India where the movie takes place.
The White Tiger follows the story of Balram Halwai, who is forced to quit school and support his family. Not wanting to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother and late father, Balram strives to break free from both his family and his lower-class status, eventually becoming a driver for a wealthy family linked to his home village.
As Balram attempts to differentiate himself from those living in poverty – who he refers to as “roosters,” obediently waiting in the rooster coop for slaughter -- he never forgets the time when a teacher once called him a white tiger, a rare animal born only once in a generation.
Since the film’s debut, international reviewers such as The Guardian, TIMES, and Rotten Tomatoes – where the film received a 91% tomatometer rating, have been comparing The White Tiger to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, while praising its social commentary of Indian society.
However, not everyone agrees with this perspective of the film, particularly the many Indian critics who have been vocal about their opinions about The White Tiger.
For example, Indian news outlet The Quint critiqued the film's usage of poverty porn, a criticism applied to films that use images and stories of poverty to a privileged audience for enjoyment. In this case, critics argue that the film offers a superficial perspective of the poor in India for a Western audience.
Similarly, Indian journalist Rana Ayyub took to Twitter to express her feelings about the film, pointing to the movie’s “shallow understanding of India at multiple levels.”
The portrayal of caste in the film has also been heavily criticized by many.
In the film, Balram Halwai, who belongs to a lower caste of sweet makers, states that "in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: men with big bellies, and men with small bellies. And only two destinies: eat — or get eaten up.”
In an interview with NPR, Benson Neethipudi, a graduate student at Columbia, said that with this type of perspective, the film creates a false narrative, and explains that “being able to rise above poverty doesn’t necessarily end caste discrimination.”
Likewise, activist Seema Hari expressed on Instagram that she hasn’t had the heart to watch the film, stating that the quotes in the book about caste turned her off completely.
The critique of the film may be puzzling for a Western audience who does not understand the nuances of caste or social class in India, but that does not mean these points should be dismissed.
Yes, the film received high ratings from many influential figures, but that does not mean the criticism of the film is not valid, especially when the majority of the criticism is coming from those who live in India.
Regardless of what your stance on The White Tiger is, when those with lived experience share their perspectives on a film about their country, no matter how popular it is or how high the ratings are, it is up to all of us to listen and reflect.
About the author:Jasleen is a writer, speaker, and educator. She is currently a Teaching Assistant and Masters student at Simon Fraser University where her research examines the intersection between media, race, and community-based educational programming in Surrey, BC. Jasleen is passionate about community building and is a graduate fellow with SFU’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative. She enjoys reading manga, binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy, and a good game of sudoku.