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Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced and written by Sonali Gulati
Directed by Sonali Gulati
DVD, color, 27 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Business, Labor Studies, Communication, Technology, Asian Studies

Reviewed by Caron Knauer, La Guardia Community College, Long Island City, New York

Date Entered: 9/11/2006

This engaging narrative documentary, which combines animated graphics, archival footage and on-site interviews, focuses on telemarketing work that Fortune 500 companies, like Capital One, Dell and CompuServe, outsource to Indian call centers. Filmmaker/narrator Sonali Gulati, a New Delhi native who teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University, is granted access to interview managers of InfoEdge, one of the largest call centers, as well as its employees, whose intensely competitive, coveted jobs pay about $210 a month, comparable to the salary that an engineer with an MBA can expect to make, and who adopt American names and accents and operate on Eastern Standard Time.

Gulati’s story begins when she gets a call from someone who pronounces her name perfectly, someone, she surmises, who is from her hometown. Through a family friend, she gains access into the call center, but it hinges on two conditions: she cannot add a microphone and she cannot shoot the computer monitor. Her camera pans into the workroom, then close-up into the workers’ glazed eyes as they recite their robotic pitches, list information, and close with comments like, “Have a very great day.” One young woman complains that even though she has collected more than $1 million in late fees for Capital One, she gets paid “peanuts.” But Gulati, in her measured approach, reflects, “The call centers are not quite the sweatshops I imagined them to be,” and she mentions, and in one case, shows a perk these workers have: ping-pong in an on-site recreation room.

A manager, a Marisa Tomei Indian look-alike, informs us that, “Outsourcing has been around for ages,” but what is new is the technology, the cable fiber under the ocean, that enables offshore remote locations to function cheaply. Gulati provides a context, using archival footage announcing the inauguration, on July 10, 1962, of the first cable calls via active satellite. Vice President LBJ takes a televised phone call in which he boasts how satellite technology will help Americans “meet our communication needs,” and goes on to say that it’s “another first in our conquest of space.”

In the last part of the film, Gulati shows a class in a language institute learning how to get rid of their accents, and this is less interesting and more prosaic than the first two-thirds of the film. It does, however, tie in well with a heartbreaking interview earlier in the film. A young man, on his fifth interview because his strong Northern accent has prevented him from being hired, is asked what movies he has seen lately. He mentions “Face Off,” then has to relay its plot. Gulati follows it up with a pejorative comment about how callers are asked to talk like John Travolta.

Old footage of British telephone operators learning how to use headphones is entertaining fun, as are the animated graphics of jumping telephones with typed, circular words of dialogue streaming out of them. Gulati is a charming, humorous, and thoughtful guide. Her camera is as steady as her storytelling, even when she’s driving in the New Delhi night and her glittering, colorful headlights light the frame. As a filmmaker, Gulati puts on her brights and gives backgrounds and bodies to the voices, the Nancy’s nee Nalini’s, who most of us deal with on a regular basis. This film would be a valuable addition to all school libraries.


  • Director’s Choice Award, Black Maria Film Festival
  • First Prize, Cinemateca Film Festival, Uruguay
  • Ledo Matteoli Award, Humboldt International Film Festival
  • Winner, Rosebud Film & Video Festival