‘The film raises disturbing questions about the nature of our personal identities’ – Ashim Ahluwalia
Better known as the director of Miss Lovely, Ashim Ahluwalia’s earlier documentary John & Jane has been receiving renewed interest even as new documentaries like Gulabi Gang, The World Before Her and Katiyabaaz are finding a new set of audience interested in it. For those cinephiles, the documentary will now be available for direct viewing on Cineoo.com.
The documentary was recently screened at Melbourne International Film Festival this year, under the category ‘India in flux Living Resistance’.
Here Ashim talks about John & Jane seven years after the film was first released.
Besides studying at Bard college and your experience there, can you talk about your education and interests while growing up?
I was born in Mumbai and was useless at school. My marks were horrible. I was a delinquent, going to dance bars by the time I was 13, things like that. I didn’t have many interests, but I did read. Not great literature or anything – just random thrillers and science fiction, along with the occasional sexy literary novel from my parents’ bookshelf.
How did cinema happen to you?
Even though I was a borderline academic failure, I found myself being accepted into a small art college in New York which didn’t need good grades. They just needed a written test – and I could write. I decided to study film, because I really wasn’t good at anything else. It was the best accident of my life. I got to watch everything – a lot of cinema that I wasn’t exposed to in Mumbai growing up. It changed the way I thought about filmmaking. I started watching films differently. I started to see how they were made,. I felt that there was so much possibility.
Has the success and attention that Miss Lovely got at an international level renewed interest in your earlier docu drama John & Jane?
John & Jane was my first film, and in a way defines the kind of filmmaking I love. When it was made in around 2005, we barely had an independent film scene in India and so it couldn’t get a proper release. But it is a very contemporary film, mixing documentary and science fiction, and probably too modern when it first came out. It showed in Toronto and Berlin and was the first Indian film ever to be sold to HBO, but few people in India ever got to see it. So it’s nice that there is so much interest in this film again, that it is now being considered the first of its kind. We just got invited to show it at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year as a “classic” which is kind of amazing. It makes me happy that a whole new generation of viewers can finally get to see it.
What is John & Jane about?
John & Jane is technically a documentary, but it feels more like science-fiction. It follows the real life stories of six “call agents” that answer American 1-800 numbers in a Mumbai call center. After a heavy mix of American “culture training” and 14 hour night shifts, the job soon starts to take its toll. In these fluorescent interiors of late night offices and hyper-malls, the film follows a new generation of young Indians that can barely differentiate between the real and the virtual.
However, this futuristic world of American aliases and simulated reality is not science fiction; these are the times in which we live. For me, the film raises disturbing questions about the nature of our personal identities and what it means to be “Indian” in a 21st century globalized world.
What was your idea when you started shooting the docu drama?
I first heard about call centers in the early 2000s. There had already been some news reports on the subject, but most of these were about business advantages and technological growth. Nobody seemed to be interested in the kind of people who worked there; for me, the idea of virtual “call agents” with fake American names seemed straight out of science fiction. Who were these Indians that became “Americans” at night?
This was all crazy for me because I grew up in India in the ‘80s, which was a very different place. There was one Doordarshan channel (which was black and white until I was 10), and you had to book a “trunk call” a day in advance to dial internationally.
When I returned from studying in the US, I returned to a new, post-liberalized Bombay – now Mumbai. The socialist feel was gone, and there were new landscapes of malls and multiplexes. The government had finally opened the country to investment and people were having their first taste of McDonald’s. I wanted to document this transition, because I knew this awkward moment would not last very long. Like elsewhere in Asia, this universe of supermarkets and discount coupons would soon become scommon.
Shooting a film set in a call center seemed like a natural way of looking at this new generation – future Indians who live in India and abroad simultaneously. What we discovered while making this film was incredible – characters who had a hard time separating the real from the virtual.
So the film isn’t really a docu drama. It’s just a documentary about our contemporary world, which is really much stranger than any fiction.
How did you find funding for the film?
I was directing ad films at the time, so I put my own money as well as used left over film stocks from those commercials. I asked the crew to work for almost nothing. Many of them had never worked on a feature film. It was made with pure love.
But everyone went on to more commercial things right after this film. K.U.Mohanan, who was the DOP, went on to shoot Don, his first Bollywood film. Editor, Meghna Manchanda who had never worked on a feature before was hired to cut Omkara. Resul Pookutty later did Slumdog Millionaire. Everybody made their money back somehow. It worked out okay.
How did you research about call centres in India? Are these real people or were they cast for the film?
The characters in the film are all real people who worked in call centres, so there is technically no “casting.” We researched the film extensively, finally short listing six characters that were really interesting for different reasons. One of them chose to actually become a virtual American by bleaching her skin white and her hair blond. These are real lives and stories, but its way beyond anything you can imagine in fiction.
How long did it take to make this film?
A couple of years, but I don’t count anymore.
How was John and Jane received when it first did the festival rounds and how did the HBO tie up happen?
The film premiered at the Toronto and Berlin film festivals and got great reviews. Actually the reviews were universally much better than Miss Lovely, which tends to get very opposing reactions, as it is a harder film in some ways. John & Jane won a couple of key awards including the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award as well as an Indian National Award. HBO Films was excited by the way the film had been made, specially the style, and they had never acquired an Indian film before. With a nice push by Michael Moore and people like that, they released it theatrically in America and on HBO. It’s because the film worked really well internationally that I was able to make Miss Lovely.
It will be available on Cineoo.com in India. How did that collaboration happen? Do you think it will help the film?
I was always a bit sad that the independent film scene in India was not ready for the film when it was made. I’ve always wanted to have it seen by a new generation of Indian viewers so I am very excited by the fact that it will be on Cineoo. Pranav, who runs Enlighten and started Matterden CFC and Cineoo.com, is a cinephile, and they started with Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus on there to download for free. For me, that was great access and the right mindset. I wanted John & Jane to have a platform like that, where it could be seen for free by anyone who was interested.
What are you doing next?
Probably too many things for my own good.
Documentaries like The World Before Her, Gulabi Gang among others are finding an audience in India now. Do you think the audience is opening up to watch documentaries with a renewed interest?
Absolutely. I think it’s an incredible time for new films of all kinds.
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– By Priyanka Jain