John & Jane opens with the lights and action of Times Square in New York City. The bright signs advertising international products symbolize the American love of money, marketing and capitalism-the principles at the core of this film on outsourcing -while halfway across the world, Indian call centres do a brisk business.
It is a world often wondered about but rarely seen. Vast, fluorescent-lit rooms are filled with cubicles separated by the regions from where calls originate (California, New York, Kentucky). The employees work midnight shifts to match American business hours. The workers adopt American names like Glen and Sydney. In a class, taught by a woman with a thick southern-American accent, they learn to lose their Indian accents. Some are customer service representatives, acting as helpful ears for people’s problems and requests. Others are not so lucky. They are employed to persistently hawk products that they don’t even understand, like an 8-piece pancake ring set. Sydney, one such caller, tries to offer an “emergency medical system”. You can hear the frustration on the other end of the line as the listener’s inquiries into what the product is are met with Sydney’s unknowing (and somewhat uncaring) answer: “It’s a medical system for emergencies.”
After their overnight shifts as perfect Americans, they return to their Indian lives. They sleep the day away, only to be woken by their mothers offering meals of dal and other traditional foods. Even as they return to their traditional lives, however, they remain affected by the infiltration of American ideals. Sydney wants to be a dancer. Glen wants to be a model. They adopt attitudes that embrace money and glamour. It’s easy to see that although they don’t take pride in their jobs, it slowly transforms their way of life.
Director Ashim Ahluwalia, along with his team, has created a wonderfully controlled atmosphere for the film. The camera work is crisp and observational. It catches shots of the workers in action. The hollow looks they reveal when someone hangs up on them are extremely intimate. It is hard to tell if they’re hurt by the rejection or just don’t care at all. The sound designer has managed to capture not only the conversations of the workers but also the customers on the other end. The camera work, sound design and editing are so smooth they sometimes make the film feel like a drama.
The only drawback to the somewhat controlled composition is that in places it feels as though the film is just skimming the surface. The first third of the film focuses mainly on Glen and Sydney but then the story introduces four more characters. This hinders the director from exploring deeper into the complexities of their lives. While analysis is not necessary (it is perfectly fine to let the observational style open a window on this rarely seen world and tell its own story), it would have been interesting to delve a bit deeper into this important subject of outsourcing.