The White Tiger (2021), directed by Ramin Bahrani

The longer I live in Israel, the more I feel it is the true homeland of the Jewish people. As a young student, I lived in New York City. As a professional, I worked and lived mostly in Atlanta, and I also resided in Columbus, Denver, and Dallas. I enjoyed living in all those cities. Moreover, my father, a Russian immigrant, was a World War I veteran, and I grew up in a very patriotic household, always celebrating the good fortune of being born and living in America. Nonetheless, the only place I feel truly at home is in Israel.

When I speak to friends and family, they express a desire to live in Israel, but still feel tied to the US for a variety of reasons such as family attachments and livelihood. I tell them that I understand why they do not come on aliyah now, but I remind them that Moses was not disappointed that he did not live in Brooklyn, Lakewood, or Baltimore. The great Moses knew that at some point in his life he would try his utmost to come to Israel, the holiest place in the world. That should be the destiny of every Jew, if not now, then at some future time.

In order to live the dream of an ideal future, one needs to free oneself from the shackles of the past and adopt a new mindset. This is the challenge facing entrepreneur Balram Halwai in the The White Tiger, an arresting story with some extremely coarse dialogue.

Balram narrates his story, beginning with an explanation of the “two Indias.” By this term, he refers to the caste system in the country in which one segment consists of an underclass trapped in a perpetual state of slavery, like “roosters in a chicken coop.”  The other segment is a wealthy upper class that lives in the urbanized coastal cities of India. Balram is born into the lower class and is fatalistic about his future, thinking it is his destiny forever to serve the wealthy elite.

His outlook begins to change when he becomes the private driver for Ashtok, a rich businessman, and his wife Pinky. Balram’s family is unhappy with his job choice, preferring him to work at his rural home. They view his job as a driver as being against family tradition, but they consent to it as long as Balram regularly sends them money, which he does. In his new job, Balram is treated with great courtesy and respect, and he begins to think of new possibilities for himself including achieving financial independence.

Society has trained Balram to be a servant, so it is hard for him to shake that negative self-perception. Initially, all he wants to do is make himself indispensable to his rich masters. However, on one fateful evening, he experiences betrayal by his affluent employers. He becomes aware of how corrupt they are, and he then plots to escape from the “rooster coop,” which for him represents a rigged and unequal system. He decides to be in control of his own destiny, thinking like a free entrepreneur, not like a slave.

Changing one’s mindset from thinking like a servant to thinking like someone in control of his fate is a near insurmountable task, and it is a major theme of Exodus. Many of the Torah commentators suggest that this is why it took the Jews forty years to complete the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was not only a physical journey but a psychic one as well.

The classic manifestation of this change of mindset occurred when God gave the slaves the commandment to establish a calendar. This implicitly meant that the Jews were now in control of their time and not subject to the whims and desires of their masters.

Bahram ultimately gains control of time and of his destiny, but how he does it is problematic. The White Tiger is a film about class inequality in society, an important topic, but Balram’s solution does not provide a model for resolving this problem.

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