As cheerfully optimistic as its go-getter Yankee owners and ambitious Indian staffers, Liz Mermin’s “Office Tigers” peeks inside an aggressively Western-style firm in Chennai, India, and finds the sunny side of globalization. A film likely to confound critics of outsourcing and confirm some of Thomas Friedman’s best hopes about Third World wealth-building, Mermin’s work is too smart not catch the kinds of East-West ironies she pegged in her previous “The Beauty Academy of Kabul.” Oddly under the radar since its Toronto preem, doc should garner distrib interest beyond airdates care of its international tube funders.
Hatched in 1999 by Joseph Sigelman and Randy Altschuler to provide large corporations with fast, reliable, 24-hour back-office services, Office Tiger is significantly different from the deadening Indian phone service banks profiled in the much darker and more critical doc “John & Jane.” Though it shares with that film a study of how young Indians are hitching their wagon to an outsourced version of the American Dream, Mermin’s pic affectionately profiles Indians embracing the can-do (and obsessive and workaholic) American work ethic, for good and ill.
The Office Tiger ethos, “To be the best of the best,” plays out here in various ways, from the hardcore drive of Deepak (all Indian employs are identified by first name only) to the struggles felt by hard-working Vinitha, who barely has enough weekend time to spend with her parents, and when she does, talks pretty much only about Office Tiger. Their commitment is sure to strike viewers as both amusing and fairly frightening, but it’s also obvious that the company’s intensity and highly competitive team structure gives laggards no chance to survive.
Although “Office Tigers” borders on being an artfully conceived promotional film (its form is somewhat inspired by a long 2004 New Yorker profile), it’s made with a sense of the humanity of the company’s people: Sigelman emerges as a guy full of cheerleader pep and eclectic tastes, while supervisors take time out to talk to their underlings like real folks. Whether this is playing up for Mermin’s camera or the genuine article is an open question. Final graphic notes that three weeks after filming ended in 2006, client R.R. Donnelley & Sons purchased the company for $250 million cash.
Mermin’s highly mobile camera ensures that office life never looks dull, and speaks of her curiosity as a filmmaker about her subject. Subtly clever uses of Bach (arranged and performed by Jon Lord and Nick Fyffe) pepper the soundtrack.