Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger directed by Ramin Bahrani and Manu Joseph’s Serious Men directed by Sudhir Mishra bring into contrast, the dark with the light, the deprived with the elite, the reality with the façade by taking us through the journey of certain ‘insignificant’ individuals who make an attempt to take a leap from the black to the white. These films, while tracing their leap towards the white, highlight their experience of the grey areas, portraying the realities surrounding those who make an attempt to escape the ‘rooster coup’. A third world country that takes pride in it’s economic achievement hides its social realities under the cloak of morality, tradition and culture. With capitalism seeping into India’s veins, the flow of development finds itself immobile after a certain point. Beyond that point lies the darker side of the rich Indian heritage, the people trapped in the ‘Rooster Coup’.
While both the films are dark, comical and satirical in nature, they reflect the known but less talked about realities of this country.
Romanticism surrounding the reality is what this essay attempts to examine while studying social mobility, making ‘The White Tiger’ and ‘Serious Men’ the right choice of films for reviewing and analysis. While these films are fictional in nature, it won’t be inaccurate to call them ‘staged realities.’
Most studies talk about caste being irrelevant in the modern context. M.N. Srinivas believed caste to be a very fluid and dynamic social institution. While caste might not play the same role today as it did in the earlier days, flexibility of the caste system has allowed it to permeate into other areas of the contemporary society, like Andre Beteille mentions: political area, education and jobs. Such is the peculiar tenacity of caste.
Srinivas’s romanticised idea of caste mobility holds little or no relevance here as the path to rise up the social structure has changed. A very distinctive feature of the current system of social inequality that exists today is the extreme overlapping of caste and class.
An economy based on profit, a society with capitalist intentions and socialist masquerade, going up the social ladder no longer has the same objectives it had earlier. The idea of mobility today involves going up the class ladder irrespective of one’s caste, and as one reaches the desired position there, the power and status of that position undermine the ascribed status of the one who was downtrodden. So the question that surrounds social mobility today is whether one is challenging the disparities of caste or disparities of class.
Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), two lower caste men and their lives, set in the backdrop of India’s darker side, the one less visible, the one more politicised. Their stories, one of success and other of failure, both begin with a desperate need to come out of the black hole, the rooster coup or the darker side. As you dig deeper into the ground, it gets darker, it gets more nauseating, but the chance of a real discovery lies there, beneath the ground. The two characters, created by Manu Joseph and Arvind Adiga, take the audience down that hole and what one sees, is the existence of an alternate world.
Balram Halwai says that there are only two ways of becoming a fat bellied man: crime and politics. While his opinion might seem extreme, there is some amount of truth in it. The elites say education is key. But when times are desperate, for most, the uncertain path of education is the long way out. Not every poor man is born a white tiger. The scene at the school where Balram stands out as the cynosure for being able to speak the language of the elites, one cannot help but wonder, what lies ahead of those who sit surrounding him, the one who have the side role.
While Ayyan Mani might have been the white tiger in his time, he feared his son would become only a supporting actor and not the protagonist, like the other children in Balram’s school. The uncertainty surrounding the path to the top did make crime and politics look like an easier option for Mani.
Another very important aspect that both films highlight is the popular idea of social mobility being migration from rural to the urban. Whether it was Ayyan Mani or Balram Halwai, both protagonists, amid their struggle, felt a sigh of relief getting out of their rural settings. While Ayyan’s intergenerational leap indicated one step up the social hierarchy, Balram’s escape from his rural household and obligations placed by his family, brought a smile to his face. The romanticism surrounding urban anonymity breaks with time and one realises the flexibility of caste identity and its ability to seep into the contemporary structures. What is observed is the “modern horizontalisation of caste” which has not only modified the ancient system and but has created further rift and competition among the “small bellied” men for the resources provided by the elites.
Karl Marx believed that unity among the working class would revolutionise the society by abolishing the class disparities and causing demise of the bourgeoisie. Both the films mock Marx’s belief of unity among those at the bottom end of the social structure. Whether united by caste or by class, the extent of atrocities these individuals face makes achieving solidarity among them a monstrous task. Often, as we witness in Ayyan Mani and Balram’s case, people trapped in the rooster coup, compete with each other, to serve the master better in order to earn differential rewards.
These divisive tendencies represent elitist traps created by the fat bellied men in order to protect their position from potential threats and keep the rooster coup running. According to Andre Beteille, economic independence, numerical strength and political mobilisation are all requisites for caste mobility. While these deprived individuals possess the numerical strength, the elites ensure that they remain economically dependent and while the deprived masses remain politically mobilised, the feeding of money by the elites to the politicians only facilitates narrowed forms of discrimination and compensatory privileges.
The path laid down by the elites, moral, the path undertaken otherwise, immoral, creating circumstances that lead these “primitive minds” to take the “wrong” path or making them their followers by feeding on their desperation and vulnerability, the deprived finds himself trapped in a vicious cycle constructed by the elites. The effort that has gone into the creation of the cycle is symbolic of the power and potential that the working class possess, because in case there is a loophole, desperation, anger and disgust will create chaos in the society for it was years of oppression that made these men feel cognitively inferior. However, while these men got trained into becoming oppressed, they experienced negative emotions. An outburst of their emotions these men could cause a situation of probable anomie.
The story of Ayyan Mani and Balram Halwai warn us about the consequences of this vicious cycle, the potential of the ‘primitive minds’ and the false romanticism surrounding social mobility.
Pitirim Sorokin defined social mobility as the shifting of people in social space. Wendy Bottero, elaborating on this idea of shifting argued that groups which faced continuous inequality were more likely to act on it and those who achieved mobility saw inequality as less durable. Looking at movements within the social structure, it is important to not only see the role of social background but also individual achievement as determinant of individual success.
Ayyan Mani and Balram Halwai’s story, set in the backdrop of a contemporary India that prides itself on its scientific and economic glory is representative of the struggles faced by those who are making an effort to rise up the social ladder. While those at the top romanticise the opportunities created by them to facilitate social mobility, it is important to note that education, often the most commonly romanticised means, has not shown any reduction in social inequalities. The poor cultural capital of the deprived families juxtaposes itself over the low quality resources, preventing them to move up the social ladder, like we see in the case of Balram.
Ayyan Mani’s situation presents a different picture. Often, the common man in India, fighting to climb up the social ladder fails to distinguish between social mobility and social fluidity. The achievement of better living standards often symbolises social mobility for most people. Mani’s 1G to 2G leap and Balram’s shift from the rural to the urban area, from doing various jobs to having a single occupation is symbolic of that. However, there is no social mobility here. Social mobility was achieved successfully only by Balram for he achieved inter-class movement, from a driver to an entrepreneur and it won’t be wrong to say he also achieved caste mobility, from Balram Halwai to Ashok Sharma.
The protagonist from The White Tiger presents a very interesting view about social mobility in contemporary India – caste mobility under the façade of class mobility. While one might rise up the social ladder by feeding on the deprived identities or by magnifying them for political gains, an alternative lies in magnifying one’s class position to such an extent that caste becomes mostly irrelevant.
Lastly, these stories break the romanticism surrounding absence of caste in urban areas. While there is categorical exclusion of workers, where some deprived identities are preferred over others, identity-based discrimination is seen as a way of coordination and enhancement in markets to increase productivity by boosting competition. While it helps in keeping those at the bottom divided, it also enhances their caste identities.
Tilly argued that caste can act not only as a mechanism for categorical exclusion but also as means of opportunity hoarding. While politicians like ‘The Great Socialist’ and Keshav Dhavre used caste as means of opportunity hoarding, Ayyan and Balram became victims of categorical exclusion. What remains the focal point here? The desire to rise up the social hierarchy, the need for social mobility, the desperation for recognition, the want for greater life chances and a hope at better life.
The Indian caste system is an ancient institution of social inequality. With urbanisation and industrialisation, what has seeped into this age old institution is class-based disparity. The exploitation at the ground level today is not only social and psychological, but also economical and political. The desperation that persists today is so monstrous, that unlike before, the men with small bellies are willing to settle for social fluidity.
The romanticised idea of social mobility is the one that the elite speaks. Ask the one who struggles to rise up to the top, ask the one who sits in the darkness, the ugly truth which one refuses to see will come to light.
A country dazzling in its own glory, hides its insecurities beneath. As these wounds of insecurities get deeper, it’s important for this country to acknowledge and address them or these fictional stories–stories of desperation to escape, will soon become reality.
- Bottero, Wendy. Stratification. London: Routledge, 2005. Chapters 12 & 14. Pg 205-243
- Wrong, Dennis H. ‘The Functional Theory of Stratification: Some Neglected Considerations’. American Sociological Review, Vol 24, No.6. Pg 772-782
- Mosse, David. Caste and development: Contemporary perspectives on a structure of discrimination and advantage.
- Desai, Sonalde; Dubey, Amaresh, Caste in the 21st century: Competing Narratives.
Akanksha is a second year Sociology student at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. Her areas on interest include International Relations, Social issues and Mental wellness. She’s a film enthusiast and she loves adding her perspective to them. She also, occasionally writes poetry and her favourite mode of expression, along with writing, is art.