John and Jane – Ashim Ahluwalia – 2005 – India – Doc

John and Jane – Ashim Ahluwalia – 2005 – India – Doc

adrin neatrour writes: There are four characters in Ahluwalia’s movie. When we are introduced to them for the first time they are all lying down in sleep induced by exhaustion. As the movie progresses we can understand their sleep as an unconscious state in which as they lie prostrate, the succubus of desires slithers across their beds and penetrates their bodily orifices taking possession of their desires. Here are lie the deterritorialised servants of the great corporations.John and Jane – Ashim Ahluwalia – 2005 – India – Doc
Viewed Star and Shadow Newcastle – 23 May 07 – ticket price £4-00

Ahluwalia’s opening sequence is a series of freeform shots of Times Sq  NewYork. The camera pans and soars through the blazing lights of the consumerist iconographies that represent an architecture of possession. The basis of the structure that shapes John and Jane is the interplay between the people and the architectural forms that condition their interactions. 

Ahluwaria’s film is characterised by regular cuts to the exterior of the call centre which is a large contemporary glass clad building evincing the manifest quality of wealth generation.   At night the building glows like a seductive beacon.  Its triangulate form, its solidity of function its representational evocation contrast with the tired workers within it, with the fragile human lives whose belief systems occupy its psychic skin.   The interiors of this edifice comprises two architectural systems: real and virtual.  The real space is functional organised for corporate wealth generation and the direction of mind to this purpose:  the virtual architecture of computer defines role.   Inside the skin of the building there is a land of certainties vigour and action that has a timeless aspect. In contrast outside life is characterised by sleepness.  One of the workers is enraptured by America and as Ahluwahlia records his paean to the USA’s modernity we are shown an image of modern India,  an extraordinary track along a row of some twenty vast apartment blocks that appear to have been plucked from a belt development project of a large US city.  The character only sees the dreams he is not alive to what is happening here now in front of him.  

There are four characters in Ahluwalia’s movie.  When we are introduced to them for the first time they are all lying down in sleep induced by exhaustion.  As the movie progresses we can understand their sleep as an unconscious state in which as they lie prostrate, the succubus of desires slithers across their beds and penetrates their bodily orifices taking possession of their desires.  Here are lie the deterritorialised servants of the great corporations.

Indian weirdness – a documentary – but with the disturbing feel of a drama.  As I watched the four stories of the call centre workers unfold, something in its form kept me thinking that this was a scripted drama.  I found myself looking at the performances of the participants and wondering where they had found such consummate actors.  The acting in the documentary was superb: understated using physical nuance rather than hyperstated faciality and gesturation that is the norm in the west.  What I saw in the performances was the fact that the four participants were  in a critical sense full time actors and actresses.  These workers aren’t just employed to do a job, they are employed to adopt become and be remodelled Selves.  They are trained and coached to be what they are not.  The outer skin of their Indian-ness has fallen away and they have been taught how to become products of the dream, the dream of wealth and riches foretold that is the unwritten but promised nexus of the work contracts they have all signed.   In order to work for the US company that runs the call centre the workers are required to slough off the skin of their Indian culture and put on a new American identity to serve the ideology of the corporation and to enable the workers easy relaxed interface with John and Jane – the emblematic average Americans who are the customers served by the call centre.

It starts with your name.  The call centre workers discard their own names and their identities are fused with a new American name which the workers chose for themselves – Sanjit decides to be Dave, the woman chooses to be Rachel.  The new nomenclature accompanies an intensive course of Americanisation central to which is the identification of the American way, including Christianity as being a superior form of life. This process of indoctrination follows tried and tested methods (bonding to the company ideals by gradated reward systems, inculcation of the company’s banal mantras of success{“It’s not over till I win”}, the depoliticisation and destabilisation of individuals through concentration on a personal achievement and  success ethos with failure being the fault of individual attitude) that are documented both in descriptive and satirical literature (such as Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House).  The point of the process is so that the Indians workers in Mumbai can take up their stations in the call centre and sell products to the Americans on the other end of the line. The reason that they are always sleeping is that they do long 10 or 12 hour shifts and work to the American time zones.  

At one level this is neo-colonialism at its most invasive where the workers of Mumbai vie with each other to take on the identities of their oppressors and to distance themselves from their own society and culture and compete to adapt the ways and manners of a foreign and invasive economic force.  At another level this is a mutual embrace in as much as there are other processes at work and there are other questions  raised in John and Jane.  Is the call centre Corporation able to exploit an aspirational void at the heart of Indian culture?  The film does not actualise this issue, but Indian society is still dominated by caste, and there is no easy escape out of status assigned at and by birth.  And these call centre workers do not appear to be high caste Brahmins. They live out their hard working lives in high density work and urban environments.  They are educated but the caste system constrains their hopes and chances of social mobility and economic betterment in a society where new images of affluence and consumption increasingly penetrate the traditional psychic barriers.   Lower caste Hindus, the untouchables try to effect escape from the system by converting to Buddhism, Islam or Christianity.  The Indian call centre workers are converting out of the constricts of Hinduism to the unabashed ethos of American self improvement and consumerism.  The one worker in John and Jane who quits the call centre does so in order to pursue another route out of the Caste system – the entertainment industry –  as he takes up modern stage dancing.  It’s also interesting that the icon admired by one of the other call workers is Elvis.  Ahluwalia captures in effect a marriage of convenience an arranged contract that generates circuits of intensity that link and entangle the purposes of the call centre and the aspirations of those who work for it.  The corporation calls for submission of the will: the workers wish to be born again.   

We never see any actual images of the disembodied beings who occupy the space at the other end of the telephone line.  We only hear them.  Almost without exception they are the voices of old very tired people.  They are offered discounts, special deals, inducements etc by the young call centre workers of Mumbai.   As their voices carry through the telephone system onto the track it sounds as if it is the dead who are talking.  These Americans are the voices of zombies, living corpses who are being fed and kept alive by specially trained cadres of duped self hypnotised young people.  What is happening is that the dead are consuming the living.   These young opportunistic misguided men and women from India are living out a zombie movie in which they the unwitting are being fed to the undead.  As it moves through all the fantastic dark humorous interaction between the workers and their American customers,  John and Jane turns into a living horror movie.  The dream is in fact a nightmare. But the workers in John and Jane cannot either tell the difference or awaken.
adrin neatrour
adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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