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This article was first published 17 years ago  » Business » Call centres: Hot themes for books, films

Call centres: Hot themes for books, films

By Nanditta Chibber & Abhilasha Ojha in New Delhi
August 12, 2006 13:08 IST
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I have never visited the United States but I know the difference between a Texan accent and a Californian one," says Sambuddha aka Sam.

He seems quite comfortable with his pseudonym, given to him at the Epicenter call centre in Mumbai where he is an office manager. He motivates, threatens and shouts at his colleagues to generate more sales, but always in a carefully trained American accent.

"Money is most important to me," says Sambuddha, who appears in Samir Mallal and Ben Addelman's award-winning documentary Bombay Calling, which will be shown on National Geographic Channel on August 15.

He could be speaking on behalf of the thousands of Indian call centre employees who work through the nights in their fancy accents, listening to clients barking orders and abusing them, but earning enough to sustain a fancy lifestyle at a young age.

In another scene from Bombay Calling, a father boasts of his young girl's earnings - predictably, she becomes a role model of sorts in Nashik as she helps her parents construct their home.

In the wee hours of the night, the film shows the call centre's employees at work in office. The "work rocks" attitude changes quickly to a disdainful "work sucks", even as they sip cocktails in a nearby pub after a gruelling eight hours of non-stop telemarketing.

Mallan wanted to make a film on the economic and cultural transformation happening in India and was amused to learn that "sometimes call centre employees were even memorising baseball scores in order to banter with their clients".

Mallan and Addelman are not the only ones to explore the creative dimensions of the BPO boom in India. Chetan Bhagat plotted the antics of the six main characters for his second book One Night @ the Call Center around this setting.

So has Richmond-based documentary filmmaker Sonali Gulati for  the witty and personal Nancy By Day, Nalini By Night, the title itself saying a lot about the psyche of young middleclass Indians ready to be Westernised in order to chase their dreams and money.

Mumbai-based filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia in his part-documentary, part-fiction film John and Jane focuses on the personal stories of his call centre protagonists.

PSBT has sponsored Bharath Murthy and Sreejith Karanavar for their film Sixth Sheikh's Sixth Sheep's Sick, a film that, according to the directors, "looks at the lifestyle of people working in call centres in Kolkata and their mechanisms for coping with this virtual environment".

Even the small screen hasn't lagged behind, and launched India Calling on Star One, a serial that revolves around a Chandigarh-based protagonist, Chandni, who comes to Mumbai in search of her sister and ends up working in a call centre.

What is prompting directors, writers and documentary filmmakers to explore the world of call centres? Mallan feels that the call centre lifestyle is intriguing. "Young, middle-class kids," he feels, "are suddenly flush with disposable income and spending like never before."

He adds, "Men and women are interacting every day. I wanted to explore the dimensions of what impact this life was having on them. How were they balancing traditions with the demands of their job?"

While Mallan shot the film for over a year, he admits to having researched by hanging out with a lot of call centre employees in addition to visiting a lot of call centres.

Interestingly, Bhagat sneaked into a call centre- courtesy his cousins who worked there - and spied on some employees in Delhi. He says he had a challenging task ahead, especially after his first book Five Point Someone was a stupendous success in India.

Since call centres were new and happening, he decided to base his story on them. "BPOs," he says, "are a part of Indian culture and that's the reason I wanted to showcase a story on it." Bhagat is now working on the script of One Night @ the Call Center for a movie that will be directed by Atul Agnihotri and will be released by mid-2007.

While Bhagat may be right in referring to call centres as part of the Indian ethos, a news channel recently showcased a special episode on the darker side of call centres. An ex-call centre employee on Life's Like That remarked, "I had to control my pee because I couldn't leave the cubicle without my boss's permission." Another girl  revealed how her boss almost molested her after he called her into his  cabin.

Fortunately, a majority of the films and documentaries look at presenting a complete picture rather than simply scratching the surface. Wendy, a character in Bombay Calling, narrates that "loss of appetite, sleep disorders and the stress of non-performance kills".

She adds, "No sales for three days can get us sacked and this is the unfortunate baggage that comes along with the mega bucks, lots of independence and late night parties."

Mallan agrees, "It is a tiring and thankless job and capturing this side of things was important for us as filmmakers. Surprisingly, India Calling avoided the darker side of call centres. In fact, the serial has changed track completely and is now just another family saga. Shailja Kejriwal, creative head, Star India says, "We weave dreams through serials and wanted to use the call centre only as a backdrop."

Most filmmakers are showing the small-town aspirations and delusions of Indian call centre employees. "My book was very popular in small towns across India," says Bhagat.

Bombay Calling has also won a clutch of awards including the grand jury prize at the Indian film festival at LA, and the most innovative documentary award at the Doxa festival in Vancouver.

"Youngsters here (in India) are chasing the new Indian dream and doing whatever it takes to succeed in the global economy," says Mallan.

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Nanditta Chibber & Abhilasha Ojha in New Delhi
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