Wednesday, August 24, 2011

118. Indian director Ashim Ahluwalia’s documentary feature “John & Jane” (2005): Juggling truth and fiction

Documentaries have a discrete charm of their own, especially when they are well made. When this writer lists his 10 favourite movies, one of the 10 is a documentary: a ten-part, 7.5 hour feature documentary called Hitler: a film from Germany, made by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in 1978. A film as long as that has to be top-notch to keep any viewer interested and energized to return after each break. One of the finest essayists and film critics, Susan Sontag was so enraptured by this documentary that she subsequently wrote a lengthy critique that eventually became a book, incorporating numerous responses that followed Sontag's initial response to the documentary film. Sontag has probably written more on this documentary of Syberberg than all the feature films made by Syberberg’s contemporaries Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Schlondorff, and Schroeter put together. This is an indication of the power of impressive documentaries.

Young Ashim Ahluwalia treads the path taken by Syberberg: getting real characters alongside actors to document reality, provoking the viewer to think while presenting facts and trends that are real and socially important for the viewer to analyze. Today there are several thousand educated Indians who live in India and work “when the city sleeps” in call centres to serve Americans during their daytime. These are Indian workers serving the American public because the work provides them with an income that is more attractive than alternative jobs available to them. And these jobs could trap them into a surreal and demanding lifestyle, if they want to keep their jobs. They have to learn to speak with an American accent and relate with the lifestyle of the distant continent to provide information that is requested or to sell a product of an American company to Americans while sitting in India far removed from the American reality. It is not an easy job as an American doing the job in his own land would demand higher real wages than the Indian. The Indian would have to bear the tantrums of the American who might realize he or she is speaking to a foreigner, if chinks in the accent surface. The Indian worker working in an air-conditioned office through the night has to return each day to sleep in his less attractive and less comfortable home, loud and lacking air-conditioning, while all others at home are either working or doing their normal daytime chores. This disconnect of time and society leads to social and psychological aberrations for the call centre employee answering calls on American 1-800-numbers or telemarketing American products in USA, while sitting in India. And that is the subject of John & Jane. The Americanization of a small urban clutch of Indian call centre workers in their youth who are changing their lives for the sake of money and a job, little realising the slow transformation the job has on their lives. They behave like the bizarre Zelig of Woody Allen’s creative mockumentary movie (1983) of that name.

The film studies how the English speaking Indian is tutored to speak the language with an American drawl and how an American speaks English (‘I kaent do it’ for ‘I can’t do it’) as distinct from the English spoken elsewhere. The film focuses on six individuals at call centers who answer/make the calls by night (Indian time) and have become pretty good at it. Some like it, some don’t but they are doing it for financial security. Their attitude changes slowly. There is a gradual morphing of Indian personalities into Indians who dream to be Americans because they are dreaming of that life style. One of the six Indian (possibly an Anglo-Indian) call center worker is shown eating bacon and eggs at home—which is not an average Indian’s breakfast. One dreams of owning costly bikes. Marriages take place between two such employees and if one spouse changes a job the couple hardly have quality time for themselves and end-up killing time as most American kids do playing video games and eating junkfood available in malls where the average Indian is rarely seen (in this movie). Their names are tweaked and Anglicised to fit their new world of air-conditioned offices and their unnatural fluorescent lighting—the six characters have names like Glen, Sydney, Osmond, Nikki, Nicholas and Naomi. One such employee is seen attending a Christian evangelistic meeting, possibly to cope with the stress or alternatively “to belong” with the world he interacts with each night. The toll of the 14-hour night shifts are varied—some take to drugs, others to junk foods. Some begin to reject their reality of their dingy homes and how their family reacts to their day-time slumber. They are the Johns and Janes that director Ahluwalia has created after studying the world of such employees at work and later when they come home to sleep in the day--some real, some bizarre and some unreal.  Exhausted after work, even their dreams relate to their work. At work, each of them have to be consistently polite yet persuasive—which is not easy with temperamental individuals on the other end, when you are constantly being evaluated for your performance and results by your bosses, which in turn decides your pay and whether you keep your job.

The film serves as an eye opener for many in the US who may be unaware of the emotional pressures that play on call centre employees in a distant land who could be upset but is forced to pretend s/he isn’t. One begins to empathize with their lot. That is when young Ahluwalia introduces us to the last of the six employees who called Naomi. She has bleached her skin to resemble a Caucasian. She has dyed her hair blonde and is on the lookout for a blonde partner. The camera of cinematographers Mohanan and Mukul Kishore does not lie—she is not Caucasian, she is an Indian trying to ape a white American.

Ahluwalia has made an interesting film that has touches of Syberberg’s cinema. Fact intertwines with fiction. Are the characters documenting their real lives or are they being made to act out a written script that is a brainchild of the director. The film opens with shots of Indians smoking pot in a car. How and why do they get hooked on hashish? What makes them want to escape their pressures of a night life at a call center? The questions become even more interesting for the global viewer to answer towards the end of the film as any answer to any question would get entangled in the film’s web woven with both fact and fiction. This writer’s daughter noted the obvious connection between this movie and Chetan Bhagat’s novel One Night at the Call Center, a tale revolving around another six somewhat similar call centre workers in India. Both works have hit the streets about the same time--in 2005.  

Any which way you look at it, director Ahluwalia has spotted an interesting subject to film and he has done a commendable job. The most arresting aspect bit of John & Jane for this writer was the striking music of Masta Justy (from India), of Metamatics, of the Japanese Minamo, and the minimalist experimental music of Thomas Brinkmann. The sound mixing/editing was top notch—Mohankutty assisted by Resul Pookutty. Oscar winning Resul Pookutty (with Mohankutty) needed to win an Oscar for this film than for the Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire! The music selected by Ahluwalia embellished the out-of-the-ordinary and disturbing subject: clearly Ahluwalia has a keen ear for music (so does Syberberg)!

It is not surprising that this cinematic work won the Indian national award for the best documentary. The problem for any viewer of this interesting work would be to consider it as a purist's version of what consitutes a documentary. It documents a lifestyle but presents a view of the director. While the documentaries of Robert Flaherty, Norman McLaren, and even Michael Moore have stayed within the boundaries of conventional meaning of the term, intelligent and important directors such as Syberberg, Orson (F for Fake) Welles, and the Iranian Mohsen (Bitter Dreams) Amiryousefi have shown us other creative new boundaries of the term 'documentary.' Young Ashim Ahluwalia joins that second group.

P.S. The Iranian documentary Bitter Dreams by Mohsen Amiryousefi was reviewed earlier on this blog. This blog contains reviews of three other documentaries of note A Song for Argyris (Greece), Reel Injun (Canada), and Leonard Cohen: I am Your Man (Australia).


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that this film is just superb. A real masterwork, very much ahead of it's time and completely rethinking what globalization means in terms of poetry and philosophy. Definitely a radical piece of film making from India - a total rethink of what an Indian film can be... Quite frankly - there is nothing quite like it (in India, or elsewhere) and I think you have hit the nail on the head with comparisons to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and (more so) Welles' F is for Fake. It also reminds me of Chris Marker and Alexander Kluge in some ways, yet remaining completely original and present-day with none of the pretensions of "art film" as we expect it. Thanks for pointing out this future classic. Great blog!

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous. I wish you had identified yourself, especially if you are an Indian or from another country. I agree with you that Chris Marker's works are definitely in the same league as those of Syberberg and of Welles.