While complaints about the industry’s orchestration of emotions and personality were commonplace, some workers also celebrated the prerogative of assembling new identities (58). Moreover, their exposure to Western cultural habits and work ethics centering on individual achievement permitted them to disaffiliate from conservative familial traditions and discredit the reverence for old authorities founded on generational connections
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Throughout the two decades following economic liberalization in 1991, India’s infotech industry exponentially grew as major multinational corporations from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia invested in information technology and business process outsourcing (IT-BPO) services. Call centers emerged most prominently in this sector, owing to the companies’ low overhead costs and the easy availability of an English-speaking labour force. A new work culture burgeoned around young, middle-class employees telecommuting with the clientele base of core Anglosphere countries. It demanded workers to commit to long desk hours, invert their sleep cycle, and adopt American accents, dictions, and alias names or identities at the workplace. Call centers also instituted the workers into the fold of the credit economy, where remuneration and rewards hinged on achieving target incentives. At the turn of the 21st century – when this offshore avenue brimmed with promise – a few documentaries dwelled on the contradictions imbuing the workers’ lives and labour. Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal’s Bombay Calling (2006), Ashim Ahluwalia’s John & Jane (2005), and Sonali Gulati’s documentary short Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night (2005) outline the immaterial, emotional forms of labour underlying optimum productivity in what has come to be known as white-collar sweatshops.
The frontline labour power in the sales-based credit economy cardinally relies on emotional engineering. Employees receive extensive training for attuning to the offshore consumers’ intimate sensitivities, cultural values, moralities, and insecurities. Better attunement translates to better transactions (Poster, 206). As a consequence, workers often become impaired with affective and cognitive dissonance. John & Jane closes in on the lives of a few individuals from an American call center in Bombay, who appear torn between the material realities of their job and the mythology of the American dream that incentivizes their labour. Among the workers portrayed in the documentary, Oaref Irani, who goes by the name of Oswald at the call center, is an exemplary case of a feverishly besotted subject under the thrall of American ideology. Living out of a derelict, austerely arranged apartment, he obsesses over becoming a billionaire through multilevel marketing and other enterprises. The walls of his apartment are laden with posters of penthouses, cars, and motorbikes, penned with dates when Irani aspires to acquire them. “You have to be in America,” he keeps reminding himself while listening to motivational tapes during his spare time, reading Claude M. Bristol’s The Magic of Believing, or repeatedly humming songs by Elvis Presley and Engelbert Humperdinck precisely because he perceives them as self-made billionaires.
Equally startling is the screen presence of Namrata Parekh, alias Naomi, who has fashioned herself as “totally naturally blonde,” or of Vanda Malwe, alias Nikki, who believes her newly adopted Christian evangelical enterprise of helping others found a pragmatic course through her call center service. Toward the other end of the spectrum are Indian Christians like Glen Castino and Sydney Fernandes, who express utter discontent with the erosion of existential rhythms and individuality at their workplace. In an emblematic scene, Glen and a friend of his smoke marijuana atop the hood of a Padmini car. As if echoing their stalemate predicament in credit capitalism, the scene captures skyscrapers bordering the distant horizon that appear close to them yet separated by a stagnant drainage canal. John & Jane opens up a critical space as it sways across the professional and personal precincts of the workers. The interposing narrative traces how call centers harp on the emotional labour of workers that outstrip immediate functionality to the extent of spawning crises in identity. The proverbial John Doe and Jane Doe – standing for average Americans – perfuse like white noise among the workers’ quotidian consciousness as they rehearse American values in office workshops: individualism, sense of achievement, patriotism, the pursuit of happiness, etc.
However, the film’s treatment sensibly holds back from siloing them as pathetic, ideologically brainwashed subjects. It draws out certain testimonial strands to reveal how the workers variedly negotiate with the call center work culture – be it feeding into their sense of liberation, adopting a motivational routine, or discovering self-expression and communicability. In his 2011 book Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves, Shehzad Nadeem locates the curious play of agency involving the workers’ interactions with the offshoring industry in the 2000s. Nadeem notes that many workers were often indifferent or even exultant about their cultural alienation. While complaints about the industry’s orchestration of emotions and personality were commonplace, some workers also celebrated the prerogative of assembling new identities (58). Moreover, their exposure to Western cultural habits and work ethics centering on individual achievement permitted them to disaffiliate from conservative familial traditions and discredit the reverence for old authorities founded on generational connections (ibid. 152). These dynamics thematically mature in Addelman and Mallal’s Bombay Calling, produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
This documentary focuses on the workers of Epicenter, a call center in Bombay, primarily during a telephone line conversion drive targeting UK consumers to shift from the British Telecom (BT) network to another private provider. Portraits of individual employees at Epicenter reveal different social phenomena developing around their work culture, including frequent late-night party outings and consensual romantic liaisons otherwise unpermitted to many hailing from small towns. For young graduates like Sweetie, alias Sweetlana, renting poses a problem because landlords do not favor women working night shifts. Her elderly landlord couple expresses discontent about India’s globalization, berating call centers, night clubs, discos, cellphones, and the internet for corrupting the youth. Besides capturing the frontline workers, Bombay Calling also significantly taps into the sentiments of the willingly overtaxed owner, Kaz Lalani, and the managerial classes in the company. Sudhanshu, alias Sam, rose to the rank of office manager after he excelled at handling direct calls – a telltale story of excelling in the credit economy. The other person from the administrative segment in this film is Alexx, the American-born director of operations who motivates the workers by crediting them as “rock stars” and has acquired a hip boss persona among them. Nonetheless, the relationship between the executives and operator-level workers dramatically deteriorates when the center starts running out of business toward the film’s end.
Though they have a more emplaced sense of their employment, both Sudhanshu and Alexx likewise suffer from extractive degrees of emotional labour to maintain the dramaturgy of emotions and personality molding of the workers. Conceptualizing “emotional labour” in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild argued that in the 1980s the performative management of human emotions had become the cornerstone condition of service and employment in commercial sectors. In Bombay Calling, the camera sustainedly follows the managerial theatrics at the workplace, characterized by whimsical outbursts of emotions among those involved in employing and coordinating the call service operators. The documentary also develops a dramatic template for charting the cultural influence of globalization. It uses intercut song sequences from new-age Bollywood films – featuring Western-styled star actors – to catalyze the emotional tempo and interiority of the workers. However, the employees of Epicenter work not without an acute awareness of their labour conditions. Even when they toast beers to the cries of “log in” in a midnight pub near the call center or tiredly groove to the early 2000s’ hit song “Rock Tha Party” by the Indo-Danish band Bombay Rockers, the aspirational young graduates hold onto their job for comparatively better salaries and exposure to the global market.
Sonali Gulati’s 27-minute documentary Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night begins at the other end of the call center line. Having shifted to Philadelphia from Delhi for several years, Gulati grew accustomed to American telemarketers mispronouncing her name, sometimes calling her “Sonali Gelato” or “Somalia Gelatin,” among other variations. But one day, when someone named Nancy Smith pronounces her name perfectly over the phone to sell Visa Platinum credit cards, Gulati is taken aback. Unsurprisingly, Nancy is an alias for Nalini, who was calling from Delhi. This encounter, fictitiously reconstructed over animated visuals in the prologue, leads her to come to India in 2003 and make a film about call centers. A close contact gets her access to one of the biggest call centers in Delhi that caters to several Fortune 500 companies like Dell Computers and Capital One. The documentary betrays a reflexive engagement with her introspective curiosities, outlining every step of her journey and realizations throughout her interactions. In one poignant scene, the call center manager Madhavi’s documentary interview gets interrupted by a personal phone call, which she answers with a clear shift in the tone of her voice. The camera keeps rolling as if reflecting on the performative guises that separate workplace self-presentation, voice, and identity from her innate communicational register.
In the voice-over, Gulati retrospectively frames the documentary filmmaking process as a revealing experience that undermined her preconceptions of call centers as “sweatshop-like environments.” The workers earn salaries akin to MBA-qualified candidates and seem confident in the performative attunement to their service operator job. Though the film does not eclipse the question of emotional labour informing offshore call centers, it locates outsourcing in the intersectional histories of technology, migration, and global imperialism. A hybrid approach constituted by archival footage, illustrations, and anecdotal information enables Gulati to formulate her part-diaristic, part-ethnographic narrative. The multimodal assemblage of references accrues layered significations traversing from Thomas Macaulay’s colonial project of teaching English in the British colonies to the first satellite telephone call in 1962 and telecommunication training regimes (Hudson, 94). The Indian-born filmmaker’s diasporic relationality adds a mordant texture to the work, which her elegantly elliptical statement articulates: “Here I am. An Indian living in America with an Indian name and accent, seeing other Indians living in India with American names and accents. Ironically, we are all living as per Eastern Standard Time.” Across temporal and geographical disjunctures, offshore call service operators become active nodes in the globalized flows of affects, goods, and services.
In the decade of the 2000s, call centers and other IT-BPO firms became synonymous with neoliberal reforms in the structure of professional services. Their promising remuneration and incentive rewards grew increasingly popular among the country’s growing English-speaking youth seeking quick financial leap. It is not coincidental that Danny Boyle sketched an accidental rags-to-riches trajectory in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) against the backdrop of a call center, where the slum-dwelling protagonist Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) works as a chaiwala. Before social media algorithmic processes led to the global capitalization of data and information, marketing firms significantly relied on offshore workers for case-by-case consumer targeting. Despite call center work appearing drab, it involves tenuous emotional labour to respond to every call individually and sympathize with the credit sales structure. The process also involves workers’ creative improvisations and negotiations instead of simply reading out scripted sales pitches. Recent narrative comedies like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) or Ishaya Bako’s eponymous adaptation of the Nigerian novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance (2023) remarkably play with the question of agency that the workers’ performative attunement entrusts them with. Bako’s film particularly reveals the socioeconomic and psychological roots behind the growing offshore scam businesses masquerading as call centers. But what the three documentaries about India’s call center workers achieve is to stretch the focus on emotional labour in an industry exclusively reliant on building cross-border human connections and trust over the telephone.
Hochschild, Arlie R. (2012). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, University of California Press.
Hudson, Dale (2009). “Undesirable Bodies and Desirable Labor: Documenting the Globalization and Digitization of Transnational American Dreams in Indian Call centers.” Cinema Journal 49(1): 82-102.
Nadeem, Shehzad (2011). Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves. Princeton University Press.
Poster, Winifred R. (2013). “Hidden Sides of the Credit Economy: Emotions, Outsourcing, and Indian Call Centers.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 54(3): 205-227.