The subject of outsourcing jobs is a sensitive one as the U.S. labor market struggles to recover from a recession. As jobs disappear, workers are faced with the problem of finding new ones in a climate of vanishing businesses and shrinking opportunities. The aptly titled Offshore, a joint Anglo-Indian production, attempts to examine the issue from both sides. The film takes place in Michigan, a state that's suffering under a very real economic downturn, and in India, which has seen its own place on the global economic stage change rapidly for the better over the last few years.
Directed by Diane Cheklich from a screenplay she co-wrote with Peg Bogema and Chetana Kowshik, the film explores what happens when Fairfax Furniture, a company based in Detroit for many years, decides to cut costs by outsourcing its call center. Think of Fairfax as an American version of IKEA — the company makes reasonably priced furniture that customers assemble themselves. The workers who man the call center are on hand to advise customers about every aspect of the product, including assembly, and the company's cubicles are full of employees, some of whom have given over much of their working lives to Fairfax.
As the film opens, Fairfax CEO Derek Abernathy (Marty Bufalini), under the gun and needing to cut costs, is being sold a bill of goods in the guise of a business presentation from Ajay (Sid Makkar), whose company, Voxx, would just love to be the winner of Fairfax's outsourcing contract. Ajay goes back to India with contract in hand, but there's a major catch: Voxx doesn't really exist yet. Ajay's father, played by Satish Shah (who will be well known to followers of Bollywood films), is literally in the midst of assembling an actual call center, complete with fumbling workmen and intermittently functional phone lines. He puts Ajay in charge of hiring three trainers to spearhead the relocation effort. The three, Nikhil, Anjali, and Reva (Neil Bhoopalam, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, and Malaika Shenoy respectively), are sent to Detroit for intensive training — at the hands of the workers they'll be replacing.
Needless to say, the three are not greeted warmly. The two women in charge of training them are resentful at first. But as Bridget (Emily Rose Merrell) begins to warm to the trio, Carol (Deb Tunis), who's worked at Fairfax for a long time and seems to have little meaning in her life apart from her job, tries desperately to sabotage the venture. Carol's anger turns quickly to vengeance, and her emotions are taken advantage of by Amanda Case, a local news investigative reporter (Alison Crockett), who's only interested in Fairfax's plight long enough to get a story. As Carol's machinations unleash a whole host of racism and ugliness amongst her colleagues, the three trainees persevere at their work and find solace in each other's company.
It's at this point in the film that the characters, who have thus far come off as real folks, veer sharply into caricature and stereotype, which is unfortunate. Carol comes off as so filled with rage, and her co-workers turn so racist and ugly, that it's difficult to sympathize with their plight. The Indians, by contrast, are sympathetic and earnest almost to a fault. There's even an Indian-American among the Fairfax employees who's forced to make an uncomfortable choice between his native countrymen and his co-workers. To say more of the plot at this point would give too much away, but suffice to say there's a slight twist at the end of the tale, and some winners and some losers. The losers are, of course, the displaced workers, and it's their plight that isn't really addressed here, but then that topic is perhaps outside the scope of this one film.
None of this, however, detracts from the film's main point, which is to give voice to some good questions about outsourcing. What are the limits of a company's obligations to its employees, and how does it balance those obligations against a shrinking bottom line during difficult times? How can we expect developing countries to develop without making an impact on our own lives in this global economy? These topics are very timely — New Haven's alternative weekly, The New Haven Advocate, went so far as to outsource an entire issue just to make a point — and Offshore will certainly give you some food for thought.
Offshore opens in limited release in New York on May 29 and will expand to several more cities in June. You can learn more at the film's official website.