Bombay Calling

According to the website Call Centers India, there are over 300 call center firms in India whose operators call out to and receive calls from all over the world. One such centre is DMM, run by Kaz Lalani. Bombay Calling follows his fortunes, and the lives of his managers and new operators. We learn what motivates young, educated people like Sweetie, Charles, and Wendy to take up this occupation. We get a sense of India’s new management class through Sam and Alexx. Moreover, Addelman and Mallal present us with an intimate picture of the transformations occurring in this vast country.

The film opens with Kaz arriving in Mumbai, or Bombay, as many of the call centre’s customers still know it, to oversee DMM’s new sales campaign for a rival to British Telecom. Many of his employees have never been to the United Kingdom. Despite the presence of Union Jacks, and maps of the British Isles made available to assist the operators, the work atmosphere is decidedly more American than British, or at least American in the eyes of Kaz and his employees. The young men and women high-five each other when they get a customer, hug after an important sale, pat each other on the back and call out encouragement. As in some US workplaces, titles are dispensed with and new management techniques are employed. In this case, the staff is divided into teams named ‘Mavericks’, ‘Terminators’ and ‘Invincibles’. These young, educated people adopt these approaches seemingly unquestioningly.

With this convivial atmosphere come the principles of hard selling. Kaz wants his employees to have “the enthusiasm…the hunger” of an eager sales force. At a training session, Kaz tells the new operators to use the British method of polite conversation as a tool to wield against customers. The operators experience at least three rejections from the same client, and yet still consider that a potential sale. If the client is still on the phone with the operator by the fifth call, the sale is considered a given. It is an idea one would expect from David Mamet. Here, it is the company philosophy.

To say that this persistent sales method is distinctly American is not entirely fair. Aggressive marketing is becoming the norm everywhere. So, too, is the operators’ work environment as portrayed in this film. Anyone who has done a stint in a call centre knows, the floor is a typical ‘cube farm’, with low walled cubicles, fluorescent lights, minimal decoration and very little indication that this is a space for living, breathing people. It is as disheartening as similar places in the UK, USA, Canada or Australia.

Wages, of course, are the main reason why many of young people in India choose to work long hours in these conditions. The average salary of a telemarketer is 10,000 rupees a month. Though this is only $255 USD, it is twice the salary of a lawyer in India and five times the national average salary. Some operators can earn up to 15,000 rupees per month. This information is communicated by short captions that do not interrupt the flow of the film.

When the filmmakers speak to the operators,some, like Sweetie and Charles, confess they’re doing this work for their families. Sweetie’s income is such that she is able to buy her parents a home – something they’d only dreamed of. Understandably, her parents are proud and say so quite publicly. They defend her from the more conservative views of the people in their hometown, who believe Sweetie should be at home with her parents and not working and living in a big city. Parents must “encourage their children to stand on their own two feet”, her father says.

While familial altruism is not in doubt, that incentive,is only part of the job’s appeal. Sweetie and Charles are also driven by the competition of the floor. They take a pride in high sales figures and winning over difficult customers. Sweetie becomes visibly ecstatic when she makes a sale, leaping from her chair before falling back down, hands to her face, which is lit up with a smile. Charles is confident of his success and pleased with the charming manner he has with female customers. They have “the hunger” Kaz hoped to instill in them.

Wendy, another of the operators, says that she likes the lifestyle that call center workers lead. The late nights do not bother her. In fact, finishing at two in the morning is part of the glamour. Afterwards, she and her colleagues head to one of the many bars, which cater to this new nocturnal workforce. On the bus to one club, they swig from a bottle of spirits, chant and yell like people their age in the US or UK. Wendy is living a life her parents could never imagine. She is involved with one of her colleagues and though she thinks its love, some of the others definitely take a more relaxed view toward office romance.

Beneath this individualism is an undercurrent of national pride. Some of the operators see themselves as contributing to India’s burgeoning economy. A young telemarketer, Nakul, unabashedly says, “Why not be the next USA? I would love to see the day when every transaction is made in an Indian rupee.” He shares the drive of the others and realizes DMM’s role in India’s economic and social transformation. .

By giving these young people an opportunity to voice their views and experiences Bombay Calling addresses the typically monolithic and impersonal approach to this country’s growth. In this film we are afforded an intimate view of what life is like for these young people. It’s true no sample, especially one this small, can represent the lifestyle and economics of an entire population. However, it can bring to the fore that human voice missing much of the general reportage we see on India. News analyses tend to portray the country’s economic transformation only in terms of labor supply. These call centers are cheaper to run in India than in the companies’ home countries, and according to Kaz, the Indian workforce is more motivated than populations in the US and UK.

The person who embodies these changes in the Indian workforce is the campaign director, Sam, whose accent fluctuates easily, indicative of the growing internationalism in his country. His moods fluctuate, as well. Whether praising or admonishing his staff, Sam is loud and brash. He seems to represent the insincere manner associated with Western managers. When sales are up, he is friendly. When DMM’s fortunes change, this warmth quickly evaporates.

Sam is proudly declares that acquiring possessions is his favorite activity. Only his baby son is more important to him. There is an uncomfortable sense that he might be saying this for the camera because he missed his son’s Mundan ceremony to be at work. In the Hindu faith, Mundan is a child’s first haircut. For Hindus it represents the removal of undesirable traits from the baby’s past life. Today, Sam’s Hinduism is only expressed in the few wedding photos on his large television.

Sam believes such indifference towards religion as his is quite widespread. He says that worship is becoming less important in recent years in India. Charles, who is a Roman Catholic, is first introduced as incredibly devout. Religion is his source of inspiration at work. A few months later he has removed the religious images from his cubicle and is involved with a married woman. The filmmakers don’t suggest that this change is entirely the result of his job. If anything, they show that Charles is like many adolescents who lose their convictions in a liberalized urban world, much as Mumbai is becoming.

Alexx, who is the director of operations, represents the foreign perspective along side the filmmakers. He originally came to India to study linguistics and though he never states why he decided to work in the call center, the sense is that like the people working under him, he was attracted to the lifestyle. He acknowledges his outsider status in the country, though a shot of a photo of him with an unnamed Indian woman and footage of him at a party with his co-workers indicates he has made friends in Mumbai. His co-workers regard him amiably.

Interestingly, Alexx is the one who comments more on the gap between rich and poor in Mumbai’s citizenry. After so much time there, he says he has become accustomed to the disparity, because ‘it’s hard to go day to day continually feeling depressed”. Whereas the operators like Sweetie see the city as an opportunity to escape the poverty and restrictions of her parents’ generation. Kaz, who has the most gain, believes modernization benefits everyone.

The filmmakers are mindful to illustrate that the wealth and relative freedom the operators experience is not universal to all parts of society. While they shop for mobile phones and ‘pimped out’ cars in shimmering shopping malls, the homeless spend nights lying on thin blankets. Modern office blocks look over a harbor where fisherman eek out a living, below. Cows, sacred in Hinduism, slowly plod among the latest model cars and motorized rickshaws. Millions cram into dilapidated trains, or cling to the sides of busses on their way to work. Mumbai is an increasingly stratified world. Those in the call centers are part of its elite.

As mentioned, this increasing wealth is accompanied by a lifestyle change. This is represented more vividly in the short documentary included in the extras section. Addelman and Mallal filmed a metal concert in Mumbai and spoke with the local fans. While some of their peers claim work “rocks”. these guys are actually rocking. Its inclusion gives us another perspective on how this country is changing.

DMM’s fortunes begin to worsen. Competition both within Mumbai and from other countries increases. The formerly successful operator, Wendy, who now calls herself Tasha, goes days without a sale and could lose her job. Others like Sweetie are promoted to supervisory positions to train new recruits in the same aggressive techniques as she had been. Charles, frustrated by his increasing failure starts, to work for another campaign but begins to find the stress of the job taking its toll. In this way, DMM follows an established pattern. As one trainer remarks, operators move to and fro, between call centers, chasing work and opportunities.

But the film doesn’t present these people as victims. Sweetie sees her job as the most important thing in her life and happily sacrifices her personal life for it. Despite the frustrations, neither Charles nor Wendy seems ready to leave. Even at this point they are still attracted to the lifestyle. Moreover, there is the fact that these three work as telemarketers. At times it is hard to completely sympathize with people who have opted to work in one the most invasive and useless of professions.

Bombay Calling is as much a story about globalization and the long history of modernization as it is about India. The image I’m left with of India is not simply a country that is mirroring the West, but one that is shaping those influences in its own image. Addelman and Mallal have brought us this story while retaining the all-important details of the people who are a part of this change..

RATING 7 / 10