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'American films would make fun of India'

October 31, 2008 18:13 IST

Five years ago scriptwriter Tracey Jackson went to Hollywood with a clipping from The New York Times, perhaps the first article to report on the call centres in India. The article talked about young Indians working in Bangalore, Gurgaon and Mumbai and pretending to be Americans for credit card company clients in the US.

"They would put on accents and say "Hello my name is Nancy," Jackson recalls sitting in a cafe in Manhattan's Upper East Side.  "And I thought this would be such a great idea for a transglobal love story."

This was long before call centres became the symbol of India's growing liberalised economy, and were features in novels and documentaries. But nobody wanted to make the story into a film, until Jackson pitched the idea to the Indian American film producer in Hollywood and the former professional tennis player -- Ashok Amritraj. He liked the idea and brought MGM on board. But then MGM got sold and as it often happens in Hollywood the project fell in the limbo stage. Amritraj finally rescued the film and it was shot last year in Mumbai.

After delays, Amritraj's new film The Other End of the Line, based on Jackson's script, and starring Jesse Metcalfe (Eva Longoria's gardener in Desperate Housewives) and Shriya Saran (Shivaji) opens in the US on October 31. Adlabs -- part investor in the film, is scheduled to release it in India in early 2009.

Jesse Metcalfe and Shriya SaranDirected by James Dodson (Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil), The Other End of the Line is a story about a New York-based American man who falls for an Indian woman working at a call centre in Mumbai. But the catch is that he thinks she is an American woman. It is a charming little film, with crisp dialogues, cute moments and likeable lead actors with the right chemistry.

"What fascinated me about the story was more from the female than the male perspective," Jackson says.  "I loved the concept of what happens to these girls, who live 10 hours a day pretending to be one person, but that world is polar opposite to the one they actually live in. On one hand they are pretending to be a character out of Sex and the City or Friends, while their families are pushing for their arranged marriages. They have the daily exposure to the freedom and openness in America and American sexuality, and they have to be aware of it and articulate it verbally. How does that psychologically tap dance on their brains?"

"Also their days and nights are flipped around," she adds. "So their entire world is turned on its head. They are not living the normal time clock and normal time zone." 

Jackson recalls the time when she set out to research the call centres in Bangalore. Her vision was to see a line of young women with braids of jasmine working on the phones. "But when I walked in it was so different and diverse," she says.  "There was a girl with a hijab, and Muslim men in kurta pajamas. And there were other men in jeans, Rolling Stones t-shirts and black leather jackets."

And Jackson met a young man who went by his alias Johnny Rocks. He was from Bihar, but the family had moved to Bangalore, where he was educated, learnt English and worked on computers. At one point Rocks was the number one sales person at all the call centres. He owned a car, an expensive cell phone and supported his family -- all at the age of 24 years. 

"This call centre business had catapulted him at such an early age," she says. "For the people who got hired in the centres, their lives were certainly changed."

Jackson also noticed alarming changes, including the presence of American fast food chains -- McDonalds, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and tall new buildings. "It looked like Orange County in Southern California, not like the India I knew and I had had been going to India for 30 years," she says. 

Jackson first went to India in 1981 on an invitation from the Maharaja of Jaipur after they met at a polo match in Santa Barbara, California. Later she took trips to India in the 1990s and got involved in writing film projects based in India -- including Ashes to Ashes, which was commissioned by Goldie Hawn. The project got postponed, but Jackson believes that Hawn will eventually make the movie. Around the time, Jackson was hired to write The Guru -- the 2002 comedy with Jimi Mistry, Heather Graham and Marisa Tomei. 

"Guru was Shekhar Kapur's idea," Jackson says about the India filmmaker who was the executive producer on the film.  "There was no one to write it, because Americans weren't writing about India back then. But Working Title (the production house) knew about me. Shekhar wasn't what he is now. Bandit Queen was out, but he was working on the post production of Elizabeth."

Guru reflected Jackson's penchant for humour. The film made fun of all people -- Catholics, rich folks and even gays. But Jackson did not poke fun at the expense of the film's lead character -- Ramu Gupta (Mistry) -- a John Travolta wannabe who eventually becomes a guru of sex for wealthy New Yorkers. "There was this innocence to him, the longing to experience something -- the American dream," she says.

"I think American films would make fun of India," she adds. "There was a stereotype that got into work -- the guy who worked at Slurpy machine or a cab driver. But that is very hard to do now when you look at the Diaspora and Indians in India. You can't write about India in that light."

Aseem Chhabra