Inside a Mumbai Call Center Indian by Day, American by Night

A new documentary turns the camera on India's prosperous call center industry -- ground zero in the international debate over outsourcing and globalization. Call center workers are asked to adopt Western accents and personas, but are they putting their lives on hold?

By Susan Stone

The brave new world of the Indian call center: well paying jobs and better opportunities come at a price.
Future East

The brave new world of the Indian call center: well paying jobs and better opportunities come at a price.

Nikki Cooper loves her job. She sells low-priced, long-distance phone plans to people in the United States -- and she feels like she is really helping people.

Meanwhile, ambitious Osmond is already making a list of the things he would like to buy when he gets rich: first a motorcycle, then a BMW and eventually a villa in faraway Spain. He knows that each Amway product he sells will get him one step closer to realizing his consumer fantasies.

Cheery Nicholas, who met his wife at work, says he wouldn't change a thing. This is despite the fact that the couple have  opposite shifts and only get about 20 minutes together a day, which they often spend at the local McDonald's. Fast food for a fast new world.

Nikki, Osmond, and Nicholas epitomize the American spirit -– they are hard-working, career obsessed and driven by consumer desires. But in reality, this isn't how they started life -- all have new personas that they have adopted as part of their jobs in India's call centers. Before adopting their new American skins, they were Vandana, Oaref and Nikesh. Teachers armed with catalogs and snapshots of shopping malls helped them to adopt Western personalities in order to make them more successful call center workers. Americans and Europeans are unhappy that local call center jobs have been relocated to lower wage countries, and the more Western the call center workers seem, the less likely they are to get any friction from the other end of the line.

The call center workers are the subjects of Indian filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia's new documentary "John & Jane Toll Free," which puts faces to the voices Europeans and Americans often get when they call customer service and are patched through to an Indian call center. The film recently screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and will run in New York later this month and eventually on the cable channel HBO in the United States.

It's estimated that 400,000 Indians are employed by the multi-billion dollar call center industry, where they serve as a telephone-wielding army standing by to answer questions and complaints from consumers in the United States and Britain. India's educated, English-speaking workforce has been a big draw for business process outsourcing, or 'BPO' firms, and economists point to call centers as one of the success stories of globalization.

Blurring identities and social alienation

Ahluwalia says he began following media reports about the growing call center service industry in 2001. After absorbing an avalanche of positive, "this is great for business," stories in the Indian press, Ahluwalia decided to step back, examine the human impact and explore how a new generation of Indian workers is straddling nationalities -- living as Indians by day and as Americans at the call center by night. "For me it was always about these characters and the transitional lives they lead as Americans by night and Indians by day," Ahluwalia told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

In preparation for filming, Ahluwalia spent a year following 45 call center workers with a video camera. In the end, he settled on six subjects -- a small team of "Johns" and "Janes" -- for his film, which is as much about the blurring of identities, social alienation and the upheaval caused by globalization, as it is about call centers.

Ahluwalia's call center workers are living virtual lives over the electronic signal exchange as self-created avatars, basking in the blue glow of monitors at the call center in the futuristic "Fourth Dimension" building in Mumbai. "It reminds me of one of those 1970s science fiction B movies you would see as a kid, like 'Brainstorm'," he says. "Their lives are closer to science fiction."

A bleach blonde Indian call center worker: "Their lives are closer to science fiction."
Future East

A bleach blonde Indian call center worker: "Their lives are closer to science fiction."

Mumbai (Bombay), where the documentary is set, is one of epicenters of the cultural and economic shift globalization is creating in India. It's also a city of contrasts -- modern buildings and highways are sprouting up, but if you drive through the urban area in one of the old Fiats that is common here, you're likely to have to dodge livestock or other animals in the roadway. The scenes here are a mix of "Blade Runner" and the impoverished landscape of India's rural farmers. But it's the new Indian fantasy landscape of high tech and consumer culture that dominates in "John & Jane Toll Free." "I might be the last guy who's nostalgic," Ahluwalia says wryly. He says most people are happy to move on, leaving behind Third World images of cows on the streets.

But India's transformation is one that is happening in fits and starts. Studies suggest the country may be running out of friendly voices to fuel the growth of the call center industry. A report released in December 2005 by global consulting firm McKinsey and Indian IT watch group NASSCOM warns that fewer and fewer educated English-speaking workers are available to do these jobs. In an unusual twist in globalization, some Indian call centers have even begun recruiting European and Scandinavian college graduates to spend a year getting work experience in New Delhi or Mumbai. Pay is decent and the cost of living is low. Technovate eSolutions in New Dehli boasts that 10 percent of its call center workers are from the European Community.

At the end of "John & Jane," we meet Naomi (formerly Namrata), who has wavy blonde locks and an English rose complexion. Although she looks like she has bleached her skin and hair, she won't discuss it. Naomi is in the final stage of the process of Westernization that Ahluwalia has documented with his film. "I'm very Americanized," she says in a strange accent that seems vaguely Texan. Namrata, it seems, is an identity lost to the forces of globalization in the new India, with its skyscrapers, call centers and consumerism.

“A lot of people say, 'Oh, it’s so sad, they’re losing their identity, can’t they go back to a time of Indian tradition?'" says Ahluwalia. "But we were colonized for 200 years. What are they going to go back to?” The call center workers may have to give up a part of themselves, but in the end they get well paying jobs, safer workplaces and opportunities in a country that is plagued with abject poverty.

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