Living out a dream
"John and Jane" explores the virtual American life of the "call centre generation."
As the call agents step out of anything that is commonplace or normal, the film acquires a disturbing dream-like quality.
Poignant account: The human side of the BPO phenomenon.
THE American Dream is truly persuasive. It pervaded the 20th Century with hysterical ambition mixed with wars and economic depressions. It is all set to chase the 21st century in newer and stranger ways. This time against a backdrop of globalisation, India's BPO industry is dishing out a generous helping of dreams, aspirations and ambitions to the never-been-to-the-U.S. call agents.
"John and Jane", a documentary film by Ashim Ahluwalia, explores this complex phenomenon the virtual American life of the "call centre generation". While it began as an inspection of a "seemingly sci-fi" call centres, the film after three years of shooting is a poignant account of the lives of six agents, the representatives of an entire community. "In 2001, when I first started reading about the industry, it was mostly business reporting. No one was talking about the human side," said Ahluwalia. "I was curious about somebody who is employed to be a fake American at night. Something that feels like science fiction but is very much present, the idea of a virtual worker physically in India but psychologically in the U.S."
The story traces the lives of six characters as they sleep during the days, learn American ways of thinking as they chug along the lower middle or middle class lives in India.
"From the 40 characters that I shot on video I selected six. They are organised in an arc starting with a guy who hates the job and ending with a girl who loves it so much that it becomes her. Spread over six characters, it gives more depth, and also becomes more about a generation rather than a single individual."
As the call agents step out of anything that is commonplace or normal be it getting a well paid job without qualifications, the day that begins late night and ends early morning (not called a night shift), be it the morning beer sessions, be it selling things you have never seen to people you don't have a clue about the film acquires a disturbing dream-like quality.
Overlap of virtual and real
Shot on 35 mm, the documentary resembles a feature, thus adopting the uneasy co-existence or overlap of virtual and real in its form as well. Moreover, the film is open-ended. However, Ahluwalia cautions of "serious cultural repercussions", as the viewers watch glossy but bizarre training sessions where the recruits are not only taught the American accent, but are also guided to admire and aspire for the world at the other end of the 1-800 calls. "Once a call agent told me that when he answers the calls he tries to listen to the sounds in the background. At that point I knew I had a film, there is something else happening here," he says.
The filmmaker (and the film) is non-judgemental. But several moments in the documentary vividly depict the psychological turmoil and pose difficult questions. For example, the posters that Osmond has put in his house as a reminder of his dreams and goals bear an uncanny resemblance to the catalogues used in training sessions. Nicky Cooper, originally Vandana, has begun to accept the call centre as her family and is transforming her identity. Sydney's mother, at some level, understands but is also aware of the family's financial needs; all she can say is, "he is tired". And, there is Glen who curses and abuses the job. (Incidentally, he is the only character who does not work as a call agent anymore. He also participated in the Berlin Film Festival where the film was screened.)
After four sold-out shows at the Toronto Festival and a run at the Berlin festival, the film has generated curiosity in the audiences. "It is like their world is flipped over and brought to them. Except for a few negative right-wing reviews, people are curious to know how this side of world is. It is interesting for Americans because they see Indians imagining what the U.S. is like."
With a book (One Night At A Call Centre by Chetan Bhagat), a television serial ("India Calling"), cheating scams and the rape and murder of a BPO employee, the BPO phenomenon is in the news. The documentary faithfully holds a mirror to these complex times of people who are John and Jane and who want to be John and Jane.
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