Message In A Bottle

Indian telemarketers learn it pays to mimic TV's Friends

Perhaps only the magic of globalization could produce scenes of customer-service trainees in Bangalore delivering oral presentations on their favorite Hollywood sitcoms in newly acquired Yankee drawls. Alladeen, a collaboration between the London ensemble Motiroti and New York's Builders Association, muses on the neo-colonial absurdities of Indian telephone operators trained to use American accents, vocabularies, and personae to put customers across the ocean at ease. Video clips of real-life telemarketers introduce the ensemble's dramatizations; stage characters sometimes lip-synch along as transcribed excerpts are projected overhead. Soundbites steadily burble commentary as each trainee undergoes a personal drama with a sitcom's dimension and depth: One woman gets fired for "mother tongue interference" while another daydreams of marrying a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who calls to book a flight.

Alladeen, directed by Marianne Weems, makes the unremarkable observation that global capitalism is irrevocably letting genies out of their bottles, and the production overkills that theme throughout. After each trainee chooses a phone alias from the names of the Friends characters, Weems repeatedly superimposes images of the sitcom actors onto still shots of the trainees in case the implications weren't already clear. As a successful service rep climbs the corporate ladder, he loses his native identity somewhere in a London karaoke bar. Oil lamps and advertisements for Aladdin movies pop up overhead to signal the mythic transformations underway. An LED board flashes, "I wish I could be a CEO."

Surfing the global economy
photo: Richard Termine
Surfing the global economy

Despite their fieldwork in India's corporate cubicles, the creators of Alladeen haven't uncovered much on a phenomenon already familiar from newspaper reports. Part of this redundancy stems from the piece's awkward theatrical structure: The video documentation tends to preempt an often flat staging. Complicating things more, the multimedia environment—alluringly designed by Keith Khan, Ali Zaidi, and Christopher Kondek—suggests an ambivalence not always evident in the dramatic treatment. Alladeen can't seem to decide whether it's revealing the multiple faces of globalization or evoking an insidious, superficial monoculture. With streaming digital graphics and a soundtrack of techno-throbbing, the production may rely too much on the technology of global capitalism to critique its effects in fresh terms. More points of contrast might help: Is the telemarketers' experience different overseas than it would be at home? Would cultural incongruities in other globalized economies—say, Ireland's—seem as comical? Despite its visual immediacy, Alladeen can be as hard to locate as the voices at the other end of the help line.

 
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