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Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night

By T P Sreenivasan
November 22, 2006 14:10 IST
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Sonali Gulati, an Indian American filmmaker and teacher, became curious when a telemarketer pronounced her name perfectly for the first time and realised that the voice she heard, despite its American accent, came from her motherland.

Her encounter with outsourcing took her to India to figure out how young Indians coped with the dual identities imposed on them by their profession. She discovered a whole new world of call centres and the social transformation that they were engendering in India.

She saw the potential for a full-length documentary on it and began shooting a trailer to bring back to the United States to raise funds for such a film. But when she began editing the trailer, she realised that she had enough footage to cover at least one aspect of the new world, namely, the identity crisis among the young call centre employees.

She decided to turn the trailer shots into a 27-minute documentary and a fascinating film called Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night was born.

When the documentary was screened at the Longwood University in Virginia as part of an international awareness week to an American audience, it touched a sympathetic chord, even though it also brought back the rural American grievance over the flight of jobs to distant lands.

Many Americans voiced concern over the consequence of outsourcing for the labour force in the United States. When they were told that it was a win-win situation for the United States and India, they pointed out that the profits went to the big corporations and that outsourcing had rendered many Americans jobless.

The film gave them a glimpse of another dimension of outsourcing that they had not been aware of. But they also felt that a film should be made about the impact of outsourcing on America.

Gulati, who was lucky to have been introduced to the right people, got ready access to several call centres in Delhi and she was allowed to film extensively on the condition that she should not shoot the computer screens or attach mikes on the people she was filming. She made up for the poor audio by adding sub-titles to the concerned frames. She was aware that she was covering only one aspect of the new phenomenon, but she could not exclude altogether the other aspects, such as the economic impact of globalisation on India.

The name of the film suggests the depiction of an individual experience, but 'Nalini' in the film is a generic name, which embraces the whole new generation of young men and women, who have been swept into the vortex of change on account of outsourcing. Through a series of conversations with owners, managers, supervisors, workers and aspiring candidates, the film reveals the aspirations, struggles and joys of the world of call centres.

Gulati discovers that the call centres are not the sweatshops, which she had imagined them to be. The workers have decent work places, basic comforts and luxuries of the American corporate life such as exercise machines, indoor games facilities and even cola and burgers.

They get picked up from home and dropped back in the morning as they work when the United States sleeps in order to use the time advantage. They have a sense of liberation from their parents because they leave home when the parents come home and they can stay as late as they want with friends even after work.

The best part is, of course, the money they earn. The average earnings of a 21-year-old college graduate with the necessary language skills is US$ 210 per month, the same that a highly qualified MBA gets on first recruitment, Gulati says. Needless to say, they earn more than their parents after many years of work and their home expenses are low as they live with their parents even after they take up work.

The workers generally present a happy and contented existence, though there is uncertainty about the future. They do not seem to grumble about the large profits their companies make and even larger fortunes that the American companies amass in the process.

Gulati raises the question of identity as she notices that they turn into aliens not only in name, but also in accent and pronunciation to raise the comfort level of their customers. The new identity protects them also from the racial prejudices of their American customers. There have been reports of some customers abusing them when their accent or pronunciation betrays their identity.

But the film does not examine whether the Nancies by night really live as Nalinis by day. That may well be the subject of another movie as they may also have the challenge of relating to the real world when they go home. They cannot but be affected by the work environment and the changed accent.

An aspirant from Jharkhand, who has a problem about making himself understood even by Indians, burns the midnight oil in a pathetic effort to speak like a Bostonian. It is not clear whether he finally makes it to the chosen few.

Gulati says that she did not engineer the conversations in the film in any manner, not even the conversation about the film, Face Off, which also deals with identity. It was simply an unexpected windfall, which she fully exploited. She just happened to film the right scene at the right time.

Indeed the skill of the filmmaker is in the juxtaposition of her shots, animation and archival material to create a witty and personal narrative. The archival material establishes a linkage between the present phenomenon of outsourcing to past cooperation among nations in the field of communications.

Gulati's own dual identity is projected through the movie, as she herself provides the commentary in her accented English. In fact, it is a truly one-woman movie except for the music. No wonder it is being distributed by "Women Make Movies".

From the title of the film to its jovial ending as the name Sonali Gulati is spelt out, the documentary commands attention by a mix of seriousness and gentle humour. Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night will be a trailblazer for a number of movies, either fictional or otherwise, on globalisation. Gulati, at a very young age, has established herself as a sensitive and artistic filmmaker.

T P Sreenivasan, who recently retired from the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He also served at the Indian embassy in Washington, DC, as Deputy Chief of Mission.

For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, click here 

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T P Sreenivasan