Dir: Ashim Ahluwalia. India. 2005. 83mins.
Tracing a fine line between fact and fiction, John & Jane, AshimAhluwalia's documentary about workers in Bombay callcentres, is an intriguing, understated meditation on the new hi-tech slavery.It follows, in relay sequence, the lives of six workers in a facility run by aUS company which specialises in outsourcing phone sales and customer servicesto India.
Ahluwalia's decision to give the film a feature sheen - shootingin 35mm, coaxing dramatic performances out of his real life subjects, setting their lives to a moody electronic soundtrack - is arisky tactic, but it works, giving this study of souls lost between twocultures an existential depth that a didactic, documentary study would lack.
Its refusal to turn itself intoan issue film will not make John & Jane an easy sell for Cinetic, but risk-taking arthousedistributors and highbrow TV networks may decide to take a chance.
The central paradox is soonstated. These six workers spend the hours of their shift in a virtual America, coaxing,cajoling, apologising and stonewalling customers from California to Maine. Thenthey go back to their difficult Bombay lives, dealing with over-protectivemothers in cramped apartments, or rolling joints while careering through the Bombaytraffic and cursing their bosses in a jargon they have taught them.
But this is not a one-waymorality tale about the exploitation of cheap Third World labour: their USclients are the Hicksville dispossessed, bullied into buying, for example, acooking set that allows one to make "pancakes in the shape of turtles" by thesehungry young termites of the global economy.
One of the film's mostpainfully ironic moments is when Oaref- a man who spends his working life dealing with washed-up US pensioners - confidently asserts that "anyone and everyone who goes to the States becomesrich".
Working on the edge ofBombay, in a post-modern mallscape that has little ornothing of India about it, these workers, in their identical cubicles, are deprivednot only of their cultural references, but even of their identities.
Those with foreign-sounding namesare forced to adopt Americanised monikers (so Oaref,for example, becomes Osmond), and they are all lectured on American values and drilledin American vowels by humourless tutors.
The most disturbing of thesix call centre grifters is Naomi, the last to bepresented, who has become a sort of cultural replicant,going utterly American in accent and appearance - her strident insistence thatshe is "a totally natural blonde" only serving to stoke our suspicions.
The photography plays up thealienation of this nether world - making it the documentary equivalent of theglobal futureville portrayed in Michael Winterbottom's Code46, with sped-up night traffic filmed as nervous corpuscles in the arteriesof a diseased global giant.
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