|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
An image from John & Jane
Toll-Free, Ashim Ahluwalia,
India, 2005; 86 min. Photo credit
: HBO Documentary Films.
There's an intriguing idea behind John & Jane Toll-Free, Ashim
Ahluwalla's documentary portrait of six workers in a call center in Mumbai,
but the director's capabilities appear to be out of sync with his ambitions.
I would hazard a guess that almost anyone reading this review has
spoken to someone like the men and women who are profiled in this film:
ordinary Indian citizen who have been "Westernized" thanks to vocal
coaching and classes in pop culture. The corporations also encourage
these workers to adopt "American" names (such as Victor or Nikki) and
many develop a somewhat unrealistic view of life in the United States.
One of the more depressing aspects of the film was listening to the
workers profiled and hearing them recount tales that would not be out of
place in the 19th Century. How no one in the States lives in poverty and
the streets are practically paved with gold.
Unfortunately, there's a lack of depth to the movie, partly because the
director tries to cram in too much information. The portraits of the six
workers feel incomplete -- like first drafts for interesting short stories that
could be expanded or better developed. We don't fully get a sense of just
who these men and women are, or even why they are working at the call
centers. Most appear to be well educated and ambitious, but some have
unrealistic expectations. There's one who hopes to become a model while
another has set a time table for success, down to the day and date he
will purchase items like a motorcycle and a home.
The film, shot on 35mm, looks handsome and the sound design
allows for overlapping vocals between the callers (most from the United
States) and the call workers. But there's that nagging, inchoate missing
element and John & Jane Toll-Free leaves the viewer with more questions