Hello, there's a god on line one

Don't you love it when you are reading an interesting news story and a real, live religion ghost rears its head?

You know that I do. After all, that's why this weblog exists. Your GetReligionistas like to praise good coverage and needle journalists about mistakes, but the sport of spotting those religion "ghosts" is why we do what we do.

So here's the scene. You are reading a fine Washington Post foreign service about a trend over in the hot, hot, hot world of popular culture in India. Here's the headline: "Call Centers Are Fodder For India's Pop Culture -- Bollywood Movie Is Latest Manifestation." And here's the opening of reporter Rama Lakshmi's story about "Hello."

In a training session at a suburban call center, groups of fresh-faced Indian recruits jettison their Indian names and thick accents and practice speaking English just like the Americans do. They have hesitant conversations with imaginary American customers who complain angrily about their broken appliance or computer glitch.

The instructor writes "35 = 10" on the board, as though he is gifting the recruits with a magic mantra.

"A 35-year-old American's brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian's," he explains, and urges the agents to be patient with the callers. That is a scene from "Hello," the first Bollywood movie about the distorted and dual lives of India's 2 million call-center workers.

Read that last sentence again and note the number -- 2 million. That leads to another stunning number, which is the $64 billion impact of the outsourcing industries on India and its complex and often tense (to say the least) culture. And, like almost everything in India, this kind of story is going to have a religion angle sooner or later. We're talking about one of the most religious cultures on planet earth.

Still, I was surprised when it showed up. I was even more surprised to learn that the religion angle is at the heart of this edgy, hip Bollywood flick. Here's the key slice of the story:

According to the cliche, call-center workers sleep all day and work at night. They are more attuned to American holidays, weather and baseball team scores than to events around them in India. Their graveyard-shift hours have given birth to a range of businesses that stay open all night. There are special 7 a.m. movie screenings and bars that serve drinks to returning workers into the wee hours.

"Hello" is based on a best-selling Indian novel called "One Night @ the Call Center," which tells the tale of six call-center agents whose fragile lives come undone one evening. After four songs and lots of tearful drama, they get that all-important call from God, who fixes everything.

Now wait a minute. When a call-center worker takes a telephone call from God, who or what is actually on the line? That is a very loaded question in modern India. I mean, look at the statistics.

krishna walks onwater 8So let's say it is "God," as in the Judeo-Christian God (uppercase, in Associated Press style). That would be big news.

Or, if this is a Hindu god, in keeping with the the land's vast majority culture, which god would be on the telephone? Anyone want to make a guess? A journalist friend of mine with lots of experience in India assumed it would be Krishna, but that's a leap of faith in and of itself.

Or would the movie possibly include -- for India's remaining Muslim population -- some hint that this might be Allah?

There's one more real option. What if the deity on the line the new, multifaith generic god/God of what I call "Oprah America"? That would seem fitting, in light of the subject of the movie, yet I would assume that this would be controversial in India.

What do I mean? If there is a hint that the God on the line has anything to do with Western culture, let alone Christianity, that would play into fears that India's vast techno industry is wedded at the hip to the powers of globalization that are reshaping the cultural structures of that land. The call-center jobs are the ticket up and out of the "old ways," right?

So how do you toss this kind of a loaded reference into a story like this one and offer no explanation? It would take a sentence or two, at the most. That is, unless the director has included a reference that is so vague that this question has no easy answer.

That, in itself, would be interesting. I mean, we are talking about India.

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