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Desi Connection: Interview with Samir Mallal

Posted by Omar / August 19, 2006


Montreal's own dynamic documentary duo Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal have a cool new documentary out called Bombay Calling. Going from the local scene (the acclaimed Discordia documentary) to the international, Bombay Calling tells the stories of telemarketers in India's thriving call centre industry. By focusing on a handful of characters, the film manages to beautifully portray this generation of Indian youth as they struggle with all kinds of personal conflicts.

We see the four main subjects, Sweetie, Nakul, 'Wendy' and 'Charles' go through Speech training in order to approximate American and UK accents and inflections. We see them partying, making lots of dough (relative to the Indian economy), and living the high life. We also see the competitive cutthroat world of the call centre. Filled with equal parts tension and bravado, the characters exude a queasy desperation that wouldn't feel out of place in Glengarry Glenn Ross.

This is a portrait of psychological globalization. What happens to a young generation of Indians when they join the fat-fuelled capitalist world and have to interact with the west on a daily basis. Its also just plain fun to watch. And it has a kick-ass soundtrack (LCD soundsystem and excellent Bollywood tracks).

Coming up on their big Montreal premiere, August 22nd at 7 & 9pm at the NFB Cinema (1564 St. Denis), we talked to Samir Mallal (Ben was away doing important doc. things) and asked him some questions about the film.

MP: How did this project originate?

Samir: We read an article about a call center in India where young employees were staying up all night and faking their accents. Seemed absurd and interesting.

MP: This film looks like it was a lot of fun to shoot and edit -- how long did you shoot in India? And what were some of the highlights for you and Ben?

Samir: The shoot took place over a year, with the bulk over a 4 month period. It was an amazing experience. Bombay is really happening right now. There are a lot of new tv channels, new cultural enterprises, new ways of doing things. It's like a culture gold rush. So it was exciting to be in the middle of that, before the rest of the world noticed.

MP: The film seems to show a few different perspectives: on the one hand, it shows how globalization has affected the psychology and spirit of India's younger generation. On the other hand, the people profiled (Sweetie, Nakul, Charles and Wendy esp) seem proud, confident and liberated from the stiffing traditions of Indian culture. They also don't seem in danger of relinquishing their "Indianness" What are your personal thoughts on the effect of the call centres towards Indian culture?

Samir: One of our goals for the film was debunk some stereotypes about Indian culture. We found that the definition of 'being Indian', is evolving to include being a participant in the global culture and economy. Call centres are just the tip of the iceberg, compared to the entire outsourcing phenomenon. This growth is empowering youth which to me is a good thing. That said, there is almost a rabid fascination with materialism that is leaving many people behind and allowing India to gloss over some of its debilitating problems like poverty and the spread of AIDS.

MP: As a desi, myself, I found the sequence where me meet Sweetie's family very surprising -- it went so against the grain of what we think of as the rural Indian subcontinent...where you surprised at how supporting and progressive Sweetie's family was? What other things surprised you as you shot?

Samir: In fact, I just got an email today from Sweetie saying how her whole family across India watched the film and were very happy to see her, which is a great feeling. I think Sweetie's family represents a lot of people's attitudes. They are concerned about the loss of traditional values, but at the same time want their children to go further than they were able to. We have to remember that these are middle class kids who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to make the kind of income that they are earning now. Sweetie's used to live in a small 1 bedroom house that slept 4 people. Now they have a nice apartment.

MP: Seeing the call centres go into decline was an amazing dramatic arc, did you know that was the trend, or did that just happen out of the blue as you were shooting?

Samir: Certainly we had read about the volatility of the industry and the negative impact that working at this job can have on its employees. As with any film, especially documentary, there is an element of happenstance, call it calculated luck. You research as much as you can and take educated guesses based on your research, but you never really know what will happen.

MP: You guys have a lot of buzz for your last documentary Discordia, how was the process of making this film different from that project for you? They seem like very different films, do you feel there is a thematic connection between them?

Samir: I feel there is more of a stylistic connection. With this film, we fine-tuned the low impact, up-close style that we used in Discordia. There is also a similarity in approach. As in Discordia, the issues are in the background and explored through the subject's personal stories, conflicts and desires.

MP: You guys have interesting soundtracks in your film (Buck 65, LCD Soundsystem, Cool Bollywood songs) , how important is the music in your films?

Samir: Music is very important. We try and not just have a score, but use the music to bring the audience closer to the subjects. In this case, we used a lot of music from India that was playing in the streets and in the clubs. As anyone who has been there knows, silence is rare in India. So the music reflects the bustle of Bombay.

MP: So what's next?

Samir: Ben and I are starting a production company and will continue making documentaries. We have two projects in development, one of them is called War of Perception about the Psychological operations of the military in Afghanistan. The other is about a cultural phenomenon that is having a huge impact in Africa.

MP: When you get a call from a telemarketer these days, do you act differently than you did before you made this film?

Samir: No, I do what I've always done: wait for a pause and then politely hang up.



drew / August 20, 2006 at 05:59 pm
Nice interview.
I look forward to the film.

Baljit / August 22, 2006 at 08:47 am
Hi Samir,

Kool interview... but i'm not that happy as I dont see my name mentioned anywhere.

Hannah / August 25, 2006 at 11:09 am
Excellent interview. I have a question: why is it Bombay Calling and not Mumbai?
javee / September 10, 2006 at 05:42 pm
Loved this film , can u please tellme whats te name of the song played by a dj in the party scene , the one that has like indian vocals and electronic music , goin nuts over that song , liked it so much . Thanks
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