Documaker Ashim Ahluwalia's "John & Jane" is a sophisticated, widescreen depiction of workers at a Mumbai call center, artfully putting a face to the voices of those who serve American customers. Some viewers may be lulled by the pic's sheer elegance into thinking it's a drama, which may help it gather commercial potential in overseas markets.

Documaker Ashim Ahluwalia’s “John & Jane” is a sophisticated, widescreen depiction of workers at a Mumbai call center, artfully putting a face to the voices of those who serve American customers. Ahluwalia foregoes many of the elements commonly associated with contempo non-fiction film, from vid to handheld mobility, and opts for highly controlled and composed lensing in 35mm. Some viewers may be lulled by the pic’s sheer elegance into thinking it’s a drama, which may help it gather commercial potential in overseas markets.

The film’s classy surface, though, conceals a lack of depth, as it fails to provide a greater understanding of the hot-button issue of outsourcing.

Indeed, “John & Jane” is perhaps most notable for how non-ideological it is in its basic mission to observe six such Indian workers on the job and at home. Focusing on personal stories, Ahluwalia contrasts the unhappy and foul-mouthed Glen and the tired, unsatisfied Sydney with the ultra-optimistic Oaref (known as “Osmond” at work, in a typical example of an agent’s Anglicized nickname), who believes that he can be independently wealthy in just a few years, and upbeat blonde-haired Namrata, aka “Naomi.”

It’s not hard to grasp why Glen exclaims, “I hate this fucking job!” as ace lenser Mohanan Mukul Kishore surveys the antiseptic, cubicle-lined call center. (Ahluwalia cleverly positions his shots as if they were from security cams.)

The job’s deadening aspects come through even more starkly when young educated Indians, most unused to hawking products, find themselves trying to convince retired grandfathers to buy something none of them believes in — in this case, “emergency” medical systems. Soundtrack also picks up the prospective Yank customers on the other end of the line.

Ahluwalia provides only a glimpse of what these young Mumbai workers feel and experience, partly due to the decision to jam six profiles into under eighty minutes’ playing time. Pic overall lacks the revelatory moments of top-notch cinema verite, just as it takes no position on whether or not globalization promises to expand world economic opportunities, especially in the developing world.

Doc is formally handsome and sleek, with a sophisticated soundtrack (sound design by Ahluwalia himself) layering voices, natural sound and a complex mix of contempo electronic music to underline the story’s East-meets-West aspects. Snippets of pronunciation classes are ironic, given the pic’s use of English subtitling for the heavily accented English dialogue.

John & Jane

India

Production

A Future East presentation. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Shumona Goel. Executive producer, Anand Tharaney. Directed, edited by Ashim Ahluwalia.

Crew

Camera (Kantana Film Labs color, widescreen), Mohanan Mukul Kishore; music, Masta' Justy, Metamatics, Thomas Brinkmann, Minamo; sound (Dolby Digital), Tarun Bhandari; sound designer, Ahluwalia; associate producers, Shumona Goel, Ahluwalia. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 16, 2004. (In Berlin Film Fest -- Forum.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Glen Castinho, Sydney Fernandes, Oaref Irani, Vandana Malwe, Nikesh Soares, Namrata Pravin Parekh. (English dialogue)
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