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India's call centers provide pop fodder

Films, television draw on industry

A poster for the movie ''Hello,'' an Indian film about the lives of call-center workers. A poster for the movie ''Hello,'' an Indian film about the lives of call-center workers.
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post / October 30, 2008
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NEW DELHI - In a training session at a suburban call center, groups of fresh-faced Indian recruits jettison their Indian names and thick accents and practice speaking English just like the Americans do. They have hesitant conversations with imaginary American customers who complain angrily about their broken appliance or computer glitch.

The instructor writes "35 = 10" on the board, as though he is gifting the recruits with a magic mantra.

"A 35-year-old American's brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian's," he explains, and urges the agents to be patient with the callers.

That is a scene from "Hello," the first Bollywood movie about the distorted and dual lives of India's 2 million call-center workers. When it debuted this month, many in the audience cheered and laughed at such scenes, which pandered to the reigning stereotypes about those on both ends of the transcontinental, toll-free helpline - the dumb American customer and the smart, but fake, Indian call-center agent.

As India's $64 billion outsourcing industry grows, the curious world of call centers has become the stuff of Indian pop culture. Their all-night working hours, made-up names, adopted accents and geeky global troubleshooting are becoming rich fodder for novels, movies, television commercials, text jokes, and stand-up comedy.

"It was bound to happen. The glitz of globalization provides its own cultural cliches. The call center is the most widely shared temptation among the chroniclers of new India," said S. Prasannarajan, editor at large of the popular English-language magazine India Today. "For the metaphor hunters of Indian popular culture and fiction, the call center has replaced the old snake charmer."

According to the cliche, call-center workers sleep all day and work at night. They are more attuned to American holidays, weather and baseball team scores than to events around them in India. Their graveyard-shift hours have given birth to a range of businesses that stay open all night. There are special 7 a.m. movie screenings and bars that serve drinks to returning workers into the wee hours.

"Hello" is based on a best-selling Indian novel called "One Night @ the Call Center," which tells the tale of six call-center agents whose fragile lives come undone one evening. After four songs and lots of tearful drama, they get that all-important call from God, who fixes everything.

"It is a uniquely Indian story with global relevance. It is about new India, its youth and its aspirations, all trapped in the phenomenon called the call center," said Atul Agnihotri, the director.

The novel's author, Chetan Bhagat, said he hung out with his "call-center cousins," stole training manuals and snooped around offices at night for colorful details with which to fill his book.

"It is not just a different kind of job. It is a different social life. It is a subculture," said Bhagat, a banker. "When I wrote the novel in 2005, the outsourcing industry was just a statistic in India's growth story. My novel humanized them for the first time."

He said three-fourths of his fan mail comes from readers in India's smaller towns.

"A call-center job is the easiest ticket for a college student to come to the big city and live the big life," he said.

The book's protagonist is named Shyam Mehra, although he morphs into Sam Marcy every night at the call center. He is the proverbial black sheep of his family because he is not a doctor or engineer like his cousins.

Bhagat said his characters love American food, movies and music but resent the irate, abusive and, at times, racist callers they have to handle. Many of the characters think Americans are dumb and wonder how the United States became a global superpower.

In another novel, "Once Upon a Timezone," Neel Pandey is a middle-class Indian whose US visa application is rejected. He settles for "a good second-best" - a job at a call center. By night, he becomes Neil Patterson and fixes America's computer snags. The job lets him pretend to be an American. Romance enters the picture when he falls in love with an American customer on the phone and hides his Indian identity to keep the flirtation going.

"The world of the call center is seen as this dark hole of amorous, other-world, rule-breaking inhabitants who are at play when the world sleeps and have made a clean break with the conservative, tradition-bound world they have come from," said Neelesh Misra, the author.

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