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Like many good science fiction stories, John & Jane suggest that the willing suspension of disbelief occurs not when we enter the realm of fantasy but rather the moment we awake to reality. What distinguishes John & Jane, however, is that it is not a fiction, but a documentary. Set primarily in India's 24- hour call centers servicing US customers, the movie, shot on 35mm film, is a potent blend of dramatic, stylized cinematography and humanist reportage.
The movie begins with a dreamlike tracking sequence through the neon excess of Times Square, New York, only to snap back to homely Mumbai and the shouts of mother haranguing her grown- up son to get out of bed. Director Ashim Ahluwalia focuses on six workers a "team" in professional jargon who embody contrasting attitudes and philosophies towards their chosen profession.
Each worker is required to assume an American alias, at times jarringly inconsistent with his or her actual personality. Glen is a defiant, pot smoking malcontent who plans to "get into something that I really like doing, modeling for Versace or Gucci. " Waifish vamp Sydney asserts himself only when directing friends in a local dance group. Ambitious dreamer Osmand admires tarnished kitsch icons Elvis Presley and Engelbert Humperdinck because they are self - made billionaires as he says this, the camera wickedly tightens on the hideous mustache gracing an exposed Humperdinck cassette cover. Self possessed angel of mercy Nikki Cooper excels at connecting with clients across impossible distances. Frumpy, Nicholas kills time at sterile shopping arcades so he can spend 20 minutes sharing a McDonald's happy meal with his wife, who works a different shift at another center. Naturally blonde, Naomi professes she is "very Americanized" in mawkish, over affected American Midwestern accent.
Ahluwalia intersperses these video portraits, which follow the characters' daily routines, with static shots of antiseptic call center interiors or aerial views of Mumbai itself bristling with traffic. Giving viewers just enough insight to assess the film's subjects, he refrains from judging their motivations or their line of work.
Instead, delicate, ghostly dramas emerge from cross temporal, trans- cultural exchanges. Sydney recounts how people enquire, "What's the whether like is it raining? It's showing here. "What about you?" A reclusive, aging man in Texas, responding to solicitations for a new long distance plan, states that he never phones anybody he'd rather " it just stayed just like it is." Another woman calls to report domestic abuse and seems non-plussed when told she has the wrong number. These fleeting episodes speak to communal isolation, as though the call center's lonely night watchmen are equally matched by solitary souls confined to suburban wastelands.
The team members' responses to their odd situation reveals as much about the universal human condition as it does about any specific local context. Nikki, a born- again Christian who embraces her job, is genuinely at peace. She turns a guest house she inherited from an aunt into an informal commune for friends and colleagues. Osmand, who reads books with titles such as The Magic of Believing, comforts himself with the taped mantra. "You deserve prosperity. Prosperity is your birthright." Naomi turns to the pulsing anonymity of discotheques, confident that blondes attract blondes.
Offering an uncommon glimpse of modernizing India, John & Jane is also a stark reflection of America's projected image. Call center staff must take cultural education seminars to drill their American accents and internalize values such as individualism achievement and patriotism. They must understand the luxury of choice that Americans relish. Another scene finds the class watching reels of boy wonder President John F. Kennedy.
John & Jane tiptoes through a taut mix of nationalist industrial agenda, cultural imperialism and colonial vestige. Some workers are enamored of their privileged access to American life. Glen launches a tirade against the unseen executives growing wealthy off his outsourced labor, expressing the accrued frustration others might feel about global capitalism. His weary mother has a more pragmatic understanding of the system, responding, "If you don't like it, leave it and go somewhere else . If they were doing what are you doing, why would they open a call center here, and why would you get a job? Then tell your Indians to give you a job!"
Ultimately, there is no coup de grace, no razor's edge to peel back the skin of one reality to reveal an underlying truth. If anything, Ahluwalia's open-ended film implies that subsistence itself is a struggle fraught with ethical and existential dilemmas. Salvation, whether through self realization or material comfort, is a lonely road to travel.
Review by Andrew Maerkle
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