"If you fight the flow of India, you will be destroyed."
That's what John Jeffcoat, director of the independent film Outsourced, tells me as we drink coffee in a Thai restaurant in downtown Seattle. He's describing a key lesson that went into, and comes out of, Outsourced, which will soon begin a new wave of U.S. and foreign distribution after a successful run at film festivals and select cities. (We review the film here.)
Outsourced tells the story of an American call center supervisor, Todd (Josh Hamilton), who finds that not only has his entire department been outsourced to rural India, he must travel to India and train his own replacement. What he discovers there is a vast society of astounding diversity, one undergoing its own cultural tug-of-war between honored traditions and cutting-edge modernism.
Now, when you take Jeffcoat's ominous-sounding warning -- "You will be destroyed!" -- out of context like that, you can't tell that Outsourced is in fact a charming, good-natured comedy with a sweetly portrayed romance at its center. But that destruction Jeffcoat talks about is a vital artery in Outsourced's heart. It's something that Jeffcoat, along with his co-writer George Wing and the movie's composer, B.C. Smith, who are both also seated with us, know from first-hand experience.
So, was a love of India already in play before the cameras rolled? Jeffcoat, Wing and Smith all agree enthusiastically.
"My interest in doing this story came from my experiences traveling abroad when I was a student," says Jeffcoat. "My junior year I spent in Nepal in a cultural immersion program."
Jeffcoat, who at 35 still conveys a boyish dynamism when talking about the projects closest to him, becomes particularly animated here. "That experience of living in remote rural areas and traveling around, it exposed me to aspects of the world that I'd never seen before. Coming back to the U.S., it was the first time I'd been able to see the U.S. as a foreigner. That, of course, blew my mind and it stuck with me for a long time. I definitely had a life-changing experience in Nepal, just opening up my perspective on what the world was and where I was coming from."
Wing nods. He's more taciturn than Jeffcoat, but you get the sense that his attention is always tuned in and locked, as if he's quietly scanning the environment for story points. "Like John I'd spent a lot of time traveling in the third world, mostly South America. I had that cultural-immersion process several times. John had his in Nepal, but when we talked about it together we both spoke the same language."
"So many of our stories were so similar it was amazing," adds Jeffcoat. "We were having the same experiences, just slightly different. I'd been looking for a way to work my experiences into some story. Hearing things about outsourcing all the time here [in Seattle], somewhere it clicked. That's how the original idea happened. I pitched it to George and from there it was 'We've got to do this.'"
For Smith, whose own time in India informs his energetic "Bollywood"-like scoring throughout the movie, reading the script elicited an identical reaction: "'Oooooh, we've gotta do this.' It was spooky because it was told through a Westerner's eyes and I've had that experience of going over there and being that fish out of water and having all sorts of crazy things happening." He says that he went to India at a time in his life when being there became "this big, huge thing, symbolic in every way."
With all that collected experience -- "experience" is a word Jeffcoat uses a lot -- how do they respond to critics who claim that Outsourced simply deals in stereotypes?
Jeffcoat and Wing both laugh. Jeffcoat also rolls his eyes in frustration. "It's really funny," he says. "Frankly, a lot of the people who are jumping on the 'stereotype' wagon, saying, 'It's not like that,' seem to be Americans who have never been to India before. Sometimes they talk about parts of the movie that don't even really exist. There have been a couple of reviews -- we were just talking about this -- that actually mention scenes that don't exist. They talk about snake-charmers and we wonder, did they actually watch the movie?"
"We've had responses from Indians who are so excited to see the positive, these other aspects of India that they don't see in American movies. One of the things we really wanted to do was bring out the warmth I experienced whenever I went to India. There's this other part of India that people don't get, and that's what I wanted to focus on, what I wanted to show."
About working as an equal writing partner with the director, Wing says, "This is my first real collaboration with anyone. It was surprisingly fast."
Jeffcoat agrees. "Both of us had about five or six different jobs when we wrote the script," he says, "so we had to find little pockets of time here and there to do it, but it came together remarkably fast."
Wing notes that they showed the script to a lot of Indians and then to outsourcing professionals. "We made a bunch of corrections based on their input."
Researching the material, Jeffcoat says, meant going back to India, this time with specific script goals in mind. "We went to Bangalore to hang out at the call center. We talked to people there, fact-checked a lot of stuff. We brought back a lot more material from there."
Wing grins at a memory. "We met a woman who trains Microsoft people -- who does Todd's job -- and she gave us a lot of fantastic material. The whole 'Mr. Toad' thing [a running gag in the film] happened to her."
Within Outsourced, Todd's romance with Asha (Ayesha Dharker) means that he bumps into traditional Indian restrictions, such as the rules against publicly holding hands or other displays of affection. Nonetheless, through Todd and Asha we also witness the recent loosening of some of those cultural holds. For instance, one scene places Todd and Asha awkwardly and unexpectedly within a hotel's "Kamasutra Room," complete with a heart-shaped bed adorned by electric chasing lights and a nearly endless supply of sprinkled rose petals. To say that they make the most of the situation gives away only a little. The scene is played for humor as well as for the levels of sexually playful romance you can get in a modern PG-13 film. The question now becomes: Given our understanding of India's taboos, can Outsourced play in that country with that scene intact?
It has and does, Jeffcoat says. After the movie's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, he took it to Goa, on India's west coast, for the International Film Festival of India. It has also played in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). "It's done very well there," he says.
After a pause he adds, "Another thing I should mention about the whole 'India responding to the Kamasutra Room scene' thing: We found [a different reaction among] Indians who have lived in this country for the past 20 years or so and don't get back to India much. For instance at one of the early script readings there was this Indian woman who said, 'We love your script, but an Indian woman, she would never do this.' Then a younger Indian woman stood up and said, 'Oh, yes we would!'"
"India is changing so rapidly that even some Indians aren't privy to what's going on there right now. It's eye opening. Things are much more graphic than what we have in the movie."
It's obvious that Jeffcoat enjoys discussing his movie's success with Indian audiences. "One of our best compliments when we go to festivals is when we get Indians who say, 'Who was the Indian involved with the film?' They say, 'You didn't write it, who was the Indian who wrote it?' That's a great comment to get. They really appreciate the movie. I continue to get people coming up talking about the details, asking how we picked up on all the little details. Frankly, I knew we were putting a lot of details into it, but I didn't realize the extent to which the Indians would respond to it. It's been fantastic."
Has the experience of making Outsourced, followed by its positive buzz in the U.S., India and elsewhere (even Dubai), left Jeffcoat and Wing with a desire to do it again? Wing says that it has. "We want to make another movie in India. We're talking about making a thriller."
In the meantime, they're working on the pilot of a proposed NBC comedy based on the film. If it flies, the sitcom will expand the movie's premise by locating the call center in urban Bangalore, then populating it with a fully multi-national cast. Picture Australians and Filipinos and Germans working cubicle-by-cubicle alongside Indians and Americans, all trying to make sense of our melting-pot 21st-century marketplace realities. "It will be a global comedy," asserts Jeffcoat.
But that's still in a future currently made even more uncertain with the writers strike. Outsourced the movie is topic No. 1 as we, surprisingly, end up closing down the Thai restaurant. Whether by design or accident, it's a movie that's largely about giving -- the giving of food, shelter, help, advice, understanding, love -- which means that it's also about receiving. It's clear that Jeffcoat, Wing and Smith understand what India had to give and what they received.
"I think every American who came with us to work on the movie," Jeffcoat says, "had a life-changing experience. I don't think anyone was unscathed. From our line producer to our producer to the assistants, they all came back changed people."
The official Outsourced site includes Jeffcoat's director's blog.