Photograph by Ayesha Broacha
THE STRANGER: Josh Hamilton goes to India in 'Outsourced.'
'Outsourced' finds surprising fun in the tale of an American in India.
By Richard von Busack
FROM THE the mere description, there's every reason to believe Outsourced ought to be outsourced, preferably to Tierra del Fuego. The documentary-style title turns out to conceal a comedy. That's a counterindication against the film right there. I imagine few in the valley want to see a comedy about the Bird of Capital winging its way to some far-away shore where it can feed more cheaply. Then it turns out the subject matter is an American boss trying to whip an Asian office into shape—and that's something else that sounds as uninviting as the awful Michael Keaton comedy Gung Ho.
That's why it's important to stress Outsourced's essential good nature and open-mindedness. The hit at this year's Cinequest concerns a hapless Seattleite called Todd Anderson (Josh Hamilton). He has a hectic job working for a company that sells Stars and Stripes–covered gewgaws to our born-again patriots. Against his wishes, he's ordered to India to open up a call center where U.S. customers can place their orders. There, he can train his own replacements, while holding some slim hope of a promotion back in the States.
The plane voyage is brutal, and he gets it in the entrails right away from some dubious street food. The "O" in Todd's name is mispronounced from the film's beginning. Now known as "Mr. Toad" he's given a wild ride to the site of the call center; it's a half-finished pile of cinderblocks surrounded by lounging cows. He quickly picks an assistant, Asha (Ayesha Dharker, who played Queen Jamillia in Star Wars: Episode II: Send in the Clones, or whatever it was subtitled. As she is flesh and blood, Lucas hardly noticed her there—far less her smile, which is so wide that it seems to unfold in sections). With Asha's good advice and counseling, Todd fends off the demands of the home company. He learns to motivate the employees without grinding them down. Hamilton's affable, light-weight performance is the right weight for this. Without seeming spineless Todd doesn't get irritated by the bemusing rules he has to learn in India: don't eat with your left hand, for instance.
Director John Jeffcoat and co-writer George Wing's aims are modest. Outsourced has the pleasures of a travelogue: the things that make this movie shine are humble common-place events, such as the ingenuity of people cooking an impromptu meal of fried naan bread, using the chromed dome of a VW hubcap as a pan, and some stolen electricity to run the hot plate. Todd learns of another custom, which also feels true: he shares the leftover of his meal with a group of workers building on the other side of his garden wall, and they return the plate clean, with a few flowers on it.
Without patronizing India, Jeffcoat's little comedy argues against the unknowability of that land. Unknowability is something Western filmmakers usually insist upon. Remember Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage to India, saying: "India forces one to come face to face with oneself. It can be rather disturbing." (Pauline Kael wisecracked, "Substitute 'Transylvania,' and that's a line for Dracula to speak.")
Jeffcoat stresses the material, natural side of India. He admires the color: when Todd gets his white business shirt ruined in the polychrome Holi festival (last seen in Water), it becomes a kind of rainbow-colored baptism. Outsourced cherishes the unbelievable euphoniousness of Indian speech. Surely, this nation is a language lab where the future of the English tongue is being created. If the people are spiritual, it's not manifest in the devotion to the unseen world. It's in the way they can treat one another.
The only figure that's even close to a guru is a resident American. He's played by the Robardesque actor Larry Pine; Todd encounters his countryman in a McDonald's. It's not much of a joke that Todd can't have a cow in his Big Mac, and has to make due with ground mutton. But over lunch Pine's businessman reassures Todd that it's possible to make a sort of home in India, as long as one meets it halfway.
It's possible that Outsourced bypasses the more ancient India of customs, castes and arranged marriage. It's just as possible Jeffcoat sees the country with that dangerous oversimplicity that you read in Thomas Friedman—the New York Times columnist, I mean, who believes some magic hand of progress is going to make every rough road flat.
Hamilton's Todd doesn't claim that capital will solve everything, and the sudden end of Todd's stay there is both likely and downbeat. Jeffcoat is obviously not naive. He knows his corporate world: how the word "offshore" has been verbed—"verbing weirds the language" as Bill Waterston said. Hamilton's Todd also handles a line about "improving the minutes-per-incident" as if it made some kind of sense; he seems schooled in the doubletalk.
The incidents per minute in Outsourced are so fresh that they might have come from straight from a sensitive and observant person's travel diary. It's clear that only people who met India halfway could have made this movie.
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