At some level, Outsourced has every stock ingredient of an East-West encounter—cows blocking traffic, bindis, arranged marriage, diarrhea. But what lifts the film beyond the usual clichés associated with that theme is that it’s really a film about East meeting West instead of West-coming-to-East-for-a-holiday or to-get-over-a-bad-divorce or to-find-the-meaning-of-life or to-save-the-little-brown-children.
When Todd Anderson’s (Josh Hamilton) entire department is outsourced to India, he is not too happy to find that he’s going to have to go to some one-horse (but multiple-cow) Indian town to train his replacement. There he meets a bright-eyed, eager set of call center workers led by the super-earnest Puru (Asif Basra) who is thrilled that his new call-center salary will let him marry the girl of his dreams. While the let’s-teach-the-Indians-how-to-sound-American sequences are predictably stuffed with jokes and gags, where director John Jeffcoat really succeeds is in showing how the IT-sector boom has revolutionized the lives of a whole generation of young middle-class Indians, especially young women, giving them a kind of social mobility their parents could never have dreamed of. From the after-hours bar (for call center workers that means early in the morning) to pre-marital sex, the young, optimistic call center workers offer a sharp contrast to the stressed-out, cynical Americans. Asha (Ayesha Dharker) is the brightest of those workers, and her romance with Todd comes riddled with typical Indian propriety: when she spots spying neighbors looking at them, Asha tells Todd to formally shake her hand as if she was a business associate. But at the same time, Asha is refreshingly in touch with her own desires instead of being the usual coquettish, eye-batting virginal innocent. If it seems a little out-of-place for the same Asha to be somewhat sanguinely resigned to marrying someone she was betrothed to as a child, it’s just the director trying a little too hard to show the complexities of Indian society, a society that seems to exist in several centuries at the same time.
But Asha didn’t have to be betrothed as a child in order for the film to have shown a traditional society in tremendous flux. Jeffcoat shows that right next to the swiftly upwardly mobile Ashas and Purus there is a vast India that literally subsists on leftover scraps from their plates.
Traditional values are not completely lost either in the onslaught of globalization. The landlady of Todd’s guesthouse looks at him strangely when she learns he rarely visits his parents though they live only an hour or so away. Meanwhile, the call center workers plaster their cubicles with photographs of their extended families (though we never see any of the family members in the film—it’s as if these nightbirds exist outside society, in a netherworld created to serve America’s customer service needs).
Offshore outsourcing has been ripe fodder for comedy even as it has become a dirty word in American political discourse. In Outsourced, John Jeffcoat doesn’t take sides, but with wit and a sharp eyes shows that no one, whether in Seattle or Gharapuri, quite escapes the consequences of a flattening world. And that amidst all the flattening, enough cross-cultural confusion still exists (and it’s not just the standard joke about rubbers) to make the East-West encounter ripe with cinematic possibilities.
Q&A with Ayesha Dharkar
What did you think when you first heard that a romantic comedy was being made about offshore outsourcing?
I thought “Oh, no, not again!” I’d already read two scripts set in call centers and they were both terrible. But this script wasn’t reductive—it managed to be funny without being disrespectful. Also, I think the film is a romantic comedy between two countries and two cultures rather than two people.
Did you have a lot of input into Asha’s character?
I am the kind of actor who likes to keep the commas where the commas are, especially when the script is good. It was lovely to play a character that was such a finished product.
You’ve played a teenaged suicide bomber, the queen of Naboo, a Bollywood diva. How did you research playing Asha?
I actually went to two different call centers. They are difficult to get into because of data protection. But the person in charge of the call center I went to was a young woman who had started out as a call center worker and was now the manager, and she was just like Asha at the end of the movie. She told me how they started out with very American systems but had to then adapt it for India. People were picked up from home at night and dropped off. She said they had “bring your parents to work day.” There were signs on the wall that said Smile, they can hear it in your voice. Of the two call centers I visited, one of them had accent training and the other did not. That is interesting, because why should you have to pretend you are not in Bangalore?
How have call centers changed life, especially for women?
Call centers have really changed the landscape for this new generation. Kids are earning more than their parents ever made. There is also all this disposable income. The moral situation is changing. These young people are often law students or medical students who have gotten an in-between job before their careers. Call centers have allowed these people to stay in India. Ten years ago, these young people wouldn’t have seen their careers as being in India.
You’ve played the daughter of rickshaw pullers in City of Joy where Patrick Swayze comes to a slum in Calcutta. Now here you have Todd coming to India to a call center. Has the perception of India changed between these two films about Americans coming to India?
There is a huge change. Studios are changing in the way they perceive characters from other countries. When we made City of Joy the studio re-cut the film to suit their idea of what India was about—you know, the American comes and provides the solutions. I don’t think they were ready to see Indian characters as people with solutions for them. John (Jeffcoat) was so aware that this was a process of discovery for both of them. When Asha sees Todd she sees a bunch of stereotypes. When Todd sees India he sees a bunch of stereotypes. But when they realize they have to work together, what starts off as friction ends up as chemistry, not just falling for each other, but putting their resources together.
Are roles like Asha the norm for what you are being offered now, both in India and outside?
Now the Indian film industry has changed completely. Multiplexes have changed the face of Indian cinema—art house and Bollywood are all mixed up. The (international) industry has really opened up. It is difficult being followed around by arranged marriage stories and stories about immigration and displacement. But what’s lovely is that people are trying to move away from that. Some of the roles I have been offered recently are roles I would have never thought of putting myself up for—like Joan of Arc in Henry VI. What I’d love to see is Indian characters not having to be followed by an Indian story line.
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|