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'India Calling'

Workers at a call center in India

KAI RYSSDAL: We just heard Johnson talking about corporate profits and how single-digit percentage gains are nothing to be ashamed of. Well get a load of this one. The Indian firm Infosys reported earnings this morning. Up 70 percent from a year ago. Most of it from American companies outsourcing back-office and technology jobs. So many of them, that call centers in places like Mumbai and Bangalore have helped boost India's growing middle class. And contributed to the Indian cultural dynamic.

Miranda Kennedy reports now from Mumbai on how Bollywood's cashing in.


MIRANDA KENNEDY: The show, "India Calling," is one of the hundreds of primetime soap operas fueling India's Hindi-language entertainment channels.
[SOUND: The show "India Calling"]

Only this one is set in a call center. "India Calling" is about Chandni, a small-town girl who scores her ultimate goal: she gets a job in a sleek call center office in the big city.

She works nights, making telemarketing calls to the U.S. But the job is anything but perfect.

CHANDNI: Crack the deal! Come on!

This is the scene where Chandni takes her first call. It's a painfully slow, melodramatic scene in which an Indian impersonates a nasty American on the other end of the line.

IMPERSONATOR: Hey, hi, this is JSK of Kent and Kathay Associates from LA. So what the hell did I just tell you? Did you just hear my requirement?

CHANDNI: Sir, I don't . . .

The way the Indian call center worker has been the source of ridicule in the U.S., the angry American caller has become legend in India.

Call centers employ around 600,000 people here. Because the industry has propelled India into the global marketplace, the phenomenon has an outsize impact on middle-class culture. It's spawned a couple TV shows and a best-selling novel called "One Night at the Call Center," in which demanding customers make the workers' lives miserable. It'll be released as a Bollywood film later this year.

SHRISTI ARYA: There is a social impact on India right now because of the easy money that's coming to the youngsters in the call centers. They're all getting jobs, they don't have to be qualified. All they have to do is learn how to speak English.

Shrishti Arya, producer of "India Calling," says she decided to set the show in a call center because everyone knows about them — even in rural India.

But although the job pays well, it's not really seen as a reputable profession in socially-conservative India — partly because of the night-time hours.

ARYA: Of course, we had angry, abusive callers. We had people lying about working in a call center. We had women being looked at suspiciously by their neighbors because they'd leave in the night and come back in the morning. One of the girls was saying that, "In my society they used to say, 'Oh, there goes the call girl. The call center girl.'"

In real life, call center workers are often accused of rejecting "Indian family values" for a frivolous, consumerist lifestyle. There's no doubt they're reshaping the country's spending and social habits.

That's more than enough material to feed some 200 episodes of "India Calling." A major theme of the show is how stressful it is for call center workers to assume a different identity — like "Sam from Cincinnati."Mansi Parekh plays Chandni, the lead character. She says her character embodies the frustrations of working in a call center.

PAREKH: Indians speak English in a different way, Americans speak English in a different way. Why do we have to speak the way they have do? They don't change their accent when they're talking to us, then why should we change our accent when we're talking to them?

Chandni breaks the mold and refuses to go by her adopted American name, "Kathy."

AMERICAN: So, Kathy . . .

PAREKH: No, sir. You are speaking to Chandni.

AMERICAN: Chand-na?

PAREKH: Chandni, sir. My parents have named me Chandni, and this is the way we Indians speak. I'm not ashamed of who I am, and will never be.

It works. The American on the other end of the line buys the haircare products from Chandni, not Kathy.

PAREKH: Thank you sir, thank you so much!

After that, everyone else in the call center drops their fake names and accents, too. Chandni prevails over the bad-tempered Americans, and the show crescendos to a patriotic finish.

It may not be likely, but it's a Bollywood ending.

In Mumbai, I'm Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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