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Analysis: Forget the ‘Real’ India — Is There a ‘Real’ America in ‘The White Tiger’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’?15 min read

29 January 2021 11 min read


Analysis: Forget the ‘Real’ India — Is There a ‘Real’ America in ‘The White Tiger’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’?15 min read

Reading Time: 11 minutes

(Spoilers ahead for Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger)

The release of Ramin Bharani’s The White Tiger has brought about a slew of commentaries that compared this film to another rag-to-riches film set in India – Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Simon Beaufoy. These commentaries addressed the same issue: which film portrays a ‘realer’ India? The consensus seemed to be that The White Tiger shows a ‘realer’ version of India than Slumdog Millionaire, but one critic believed that both films commit the same mistake of focussing too narrowly on India’s slums and poverty.

Having watched both films consecutively in quick succession, I’m of the opinion that The White Tiger does seem to portray a ‘realer’ India. But really, that’s not up for me to decide. Instead, I wish to steer the conversation to talk about an equally important issue: which of the two films paints a ‘realer’ picture of America or Britain? Putting it another way, how do The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire differ or agree in the ways they portray America or Britain?

Even if the main casts in both films are ethnically Indian, the American or British presence is unmistakable in both films. I will go so far as to say that their presences bleed across the entire length of the films, hanging in the backdrop and reminding the audiences – and sometimes characters – that they cannot escape Western influence.

Take, for instance, how the American presence worms its way into The White Tiger through the characterisation of Pinky and Ashok, the rich and affluent Indian masters that the lead character, Balram, serves. Both of them are schooled in America, especially Pinky, who is born and raised in New York. Ashok loves to talk about how India’s economic future is secured if the country outsources to America.

Balram (Left) and Ashok (Right) in New Delhi / Photo Credit: Netflix

Likewise, in Slumdog Millionaire, American tourists appear to patronise Taj Mahal and Dhobi Ghat, reminding audiences that India is an exotic tourist destination. The use of English in inappropriate moments — would the policeman speak English to Jamal in the police station? — also seems to cater primarily to the British audience. 

But are these images of America or Britain ‘real?’ When are they authentic — or at least, portrayed convincingly — and when are they fantasies, catering to a narcissistic audience that wants to see themselves in the film? Comparing The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire might help us glimpse into how dangerous it can be when a film declares itself to be ‘real,’ when it is anything but.

Film critics and reviewers somehow prefer to explore the ‘real’ India in the two films, but nobody wants to explore how authentic the images of America or Britain are in them. And that’s unsurprising. After all, it’s far, far more exciting to talk about India and dictate what is real about it and what is not, and it’s far, far scarier to look inwards and ask themselves what is real and not real about America or Britain.

What is Authentic, What is Not?

When we go to the cinemas and watch a realist film, we bring along certain expectations. The worldbuilding, images, and storyline must be consistent and well-developed to the extent where we suspend our disbelief and treat the fictional film almost like a real-life event. The believability of the film therefore hinges on how well the filmmaker and their crew can be specific with the film details. And once this believability is achieved, viewers are more likely to accept that the film is portraying ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ images.

That means, however, that a film’s believability is not synonymous to its authenticity. A film can be well-crafted, full of specific details, but it might not be true or authentic to the society or culture it is trying to represent. After all, authenticity includes socio-cultural, historical, political, and even interpersonal dimensions of details that might otherwise be left out by filmmakers in order to make the story more formulaic or popular to sell to the audiences.

The Slums of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ / Photo Credit: Pathe Distribution

Authenticity therefore directly impacts representation as well; specifically, representation of cultures and societies that are outside of one’s purview. And representation is especially important if the filmmaker wants to bridge two different cultures. This seems to be the case for Slumdog Millionaire. Even though the story is set in India, the production team is entirely British, and it’s catered to a British audience. For British audiences who have never been to India, they can get a glimpse of what India looks or sounds like in the film. The film hence influences how they think and know of India, and it may even become the sole ‘reality’ of India that they learn of.

Research can help to make a film more authentic and believable. Simon Beaufoy and Bharani Ramin, screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire and director of The White Tiger respectively, went to India and not only walked around the locations that would later become the setting of their films, but also interviewed and interacted with the people around them. 

Whether such research is enough or not, however, ultimately depends on how the producer and director carry out the film’s production. Even though Danny Boyle painstakingly tried to make the film’s dialogue thirty percent Hindi, and went around trying to cast Bollywood actors, criticisms still were levied against the film for the unfamiliar, abnormal use of English and Hindi. The film’s concentration on India’s slums – while ignoring other parts of India – was also criticised heavily. As a result, the film received lukewarm response and reproval in India, since the audiences there couldn’t see how the film was faithful to their reality.

Ramin Bahrani / Photo Credit: Brad Trent 

It seems, then, that the authenticity of films lies not only in the filmmakers’ hands, but also in the audiences who watch it. Sure, Slumdog Millionaire is critically and internationally acclaimed. But if Indian audiences lambasted it for its inaccuracies, doesn’t that mean the film is inauthentic?

Yet, it’s no coincidence that the film won many awards. According to Roger Ebert, Slumdog Millionaire’s “universal appeal will present the real India to millions of moviegoers for the first time.” Universal to who? Perhaps it’s only universal to Americans and British people, who narcissistically enjoy the film since they see themselves glorified in the film.

Narcissism and Film

Narcissism, in the generic sense, refers to an obsession with the self. More often than not, it includes degrading other people, portraying them as inferior in order to elevate the narcissistic self.

Laura Mulvey, an esteemed film theorist who published pieces on psychoanalytic film theory, has much to say about how narcissism is intricately related to films. I’ll spare you the academic language, but Mulvey argues that when the audience is watching a film, they are not only vicariously experiencing the characters’ emotional states, but they are also seeing parts of themselves in the characters, thus identifying with the characters. It is this self-identification, of seeing themselves in the characters, which makes the watching of films a narcissistic experience.

By no means is narcissism in films a bad thing. Narcissism – if you ignore its negative connotations – is one of the ways in which we enjoy films. We all love to identify with the characters on screen, and it is the foremost means of empathising with them.

Danny Boyle (Left) and Simon Beaufoy (Right) / Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

And this is why a film’s intended audience is important. Imagine a Singaporean filmmaker writing a film specifically with an American audience in mind, but the film steeped in Singapore culture. Likely, the film will not sell well or be taken seriously in America and Singapore, because Singapore is foreign to Americans, and Singaporeans will find the film jarring with inauthentic details and exoticism.

So what happens when America or Britain produce films that are set in foreign countries, and still cater to a white gaze? The onus is on the producers to make the film as authentic as possible, but they still need to consider how to sell the film to their people. This is why, perhaps, Boyle and Beaufoy chose to focus a rags-to-riches, feel-good story, with an underdog character who triumphs his poverty. Everybody likes the ‘universal’ appeal of this formulaic story. 

And to the white audience, Slumdog Millionaire is authentic because it panders to whatever they have believed about India all along – a third-world country, full of filth and beggars and immoral people. The use of English and Hindi in inappropriate moments doesn’t matter to the British audience, as long as they can understand what’s going on. And more importantly, the film panders to their belief that such countries need America’s or Britain’s help, indulging in their white saviour complex.

The Kind American

This white saviour complex manifests itself in a particular trope that appears not only in Slumdog Millionaire, but also in The White Tiger: the ‘Kind American’ versus ‘Cruel Indian’ trope.

In Slumdog Millionaire, this trope appears when Jamal cheats a pair of American tourists and their Indian chauffeur. As Jamal brings the tourists and the chauffeur around for sightseeing, his friends appear to dismantle and steal every part of the car that the tourists have been using to get around India. Upon realising what happened, the chauffeur beats up Jamal. The tourists are horrified by the violence, and intervene to stop the chauffeur.  

American tourist cradling younger Jamal, after he got beaten up / Photo Credit: Pathe Distribution

Meanwhile, Jamal is unremorseful at stealing from the tourist and the chauffeur, going so far as to say “You wanted to see a bit of the real India? Here it is!” Surprisingly, the tourists don’t blame Jamal. Instead, they give him a hundred-dollar bill while the American woman, who is cradling the injured Jamal in her arms, says, “Here is a bit of the real America, son.”

For what it’s worth, I do believe that there are such Americans who, despite having just robbed, are so generous, forgiving, and altruistic. But what I’m baffled about is how the film decides to stake its claim on what the ‘real’ India and America are in this short scene.

The ‘real’ India is an India which unscrupulously takes advantage of tourists, which has cruel Indian adults who unabashedly hit orphaned and starving children. The ‘real’ America, conversely, has Americans who take unadulterated pity on the children, donates them money without seeking compensation, and saves them from the evil Indian adults. Kindness is innate in Americans, and immorality and evilness are innate in Indians. However, an unkind America and a generous Indian cannot exist because they are not part of the ‘real’ India and America.

In fact, without the American tourists’ help, Jamal wouldn’t have been able to progress through the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The kind, virtuous American saves the day. This is a film that panders to the white gaze, demonstrating to the white audience that India needs their help, elevating their superiority and fuelling their narcissism.

Jamal (Dev Patel) winning the game show / Photo Credit: Pathe Distribution

But is such an image of American convincing? Perhaps if the American tourists are characters fully fleshed out, I might be more persuaded of their kindness. But as it stands, these tourists are nothing more than plot devices, and their dialogue rings hollow to me, devoid of any truth. 

The Kind, but Blind American

At first glance, The White Tiger seems to be as narcissistic as Slumdog Millionaire. The film also focusses on India’s slums, some of the characters also speak in American-accented English, and the film is distributed globally through Netflix. But I’d like to give the film the benefit of doubt. Because it seems to me that it is made for Indians who have not only suffered from India’s caste system, but also from how India suffered from neo-imperialism.

The White Tiger revisits the ‘Kind American’ versus ‘Cruel Indian’ trope, but in a manner that seems to suggest that it is critiquing it. In fact, one might even argue that the film is deliberately anti-Slumdog Millionaire, with Balram at one point in the film satirically saying, “Don’t believe for a second there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of [this servile position.]”

In the film, Pinky – played by Priyanka Chopra – embodies the ‘Kind American’ trope. One of her more distinctive traits is how opposed she is to the idea of ‘using’ Balram as a servant, as opposed to her in-laws. She also tells Balram how she feels it’s incorrect that Balram is serving Ashok’s family. Instead, he should be pursuing his own life, such as starting a family or pursuing an education.

All of these point to Pinky as a kind person who genuinely wants to free Balram out of his servile position. Yet, there seems to be some level of hypocrisy to Pinky’s actions, since she quickly got used to the idea of having Balram as a servant who serves her tea and chauffeurs her and Ashok around.

When Pinky got disillusioned after seeing how mistreated Balram is, where he was verbally and physically abused right in front of her eyes, she leaves Ashok to fly back to America. Before leaving, she gives Balram 9300 rupees, which he observes is “almost three months [his] salary, but not quite.”

Pinky’s kindness, then, seems to be contingent on how rich she is; she can be kind because she is rich. Although she advises Balram to chart his own life, she is blind to the fact that he is unable to do so because he is poor. She believes that giving Balram 9300 rupees – which is around 120 USD, almost the same amount donated in Slumdog Millionaire – can save him from his life of poverty, but the root of his oppression and suffering is more than just financial constraints; it is also India’s caste system, the overwhelming discrimination against lower castes.

This is the ‘realer’ America that Bharani strives to portray in the movie – an America that may have good intentions, but blinded by their socio-economic privileges and neoliberal ideologies, they become insensitive to India’s long socio-cultural history. Neoliberalism, at the risk of generalising, refers to free-market capitalism, where people’s freedom is limited to their spending power. 

Balram massaging his master’s leg, with Pinky (Right) beside him / Photo Credit: Netflix

I doubt the film is trying to portray Americans as unhelpful or immoral or useless. Rather, it is critiquing how Americans are not the white saviours they think they are. Isn’t that why Pinky’s exit from the film is symbolic? She runs away knowing that she is useless. She is not the saviour she thinks she is, even though she is right in trying to help Balram.

I wonder how Pinky will react if she finds out that Balram killed Ashok. Will she be happy that Balram listened to her, charted his own life, and attained social mobility? Or will she be devastated by how he had to murder in order to break free from his circumstances?

Is There a ‘Real’ Britain or America?

Alas, just like how I don’t have the authority to decide which film portrays a ‘realer’ India, I don’t have the authority to decide which film portrays a ‘realer’ America or Britain either. Even so, it pays to be sceptical and critical. I am still unconvinced by the kindness portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire. And as much as The White Tiger is a film based on a novel written by an Indian writer, Aravind Adiga, that doesn’t make the film’s portrayal of Indian-Americans absolutely authentic and true.

But I suppose the two films, to some extent, portray a facet of reality. To that end, comparing just two films – especially ones that don’t even address America directly – isn’t enough to explore what the ‘real’ America is. One film isn’t enough to capture reality, or the authenticity of the issues it is trying to address. But looking at multiple of them together, especially ones that contest and contrast each other, might just do the trick.

The White Tiger is now showing on Netflix.

Give Shi Quan some books to read and films to watch, a cup of coffee, and a lazy cat, and he won't come out of his home for days.
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