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VoIP Bids for Best Picture Debut in "Slumdog Millionaire"

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February 09, 2009

VoIP Bids for Best Picture Debut in "Slumdog Millionaire"

By Michael Dinan, TMCnet Editor

An eighteen-year-old from the slums of Mumbai finds himself competing on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” where the questions he must answer offer a look back at his earlier life. The show’s host, however, insists that he must be cheating and takes steps to force young Jamal to admit that a boy from such an impoverished background could not possibly possess the knowledge necessary to win the show’s top prize.

That’s how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences describes “Slumdog Millionaire” – the Danny Boyle-directed film that already claimed a “Best Picture” title at last month’s Golden Globe Awards and will bid for Hollywood’s highest prize at The Oscars on Feb. 22.
My wife and I saw it the other night and I can well understand the accolades the film has received in a wide swath of categories from numerous film festivals. The little movie that could made its debut in Telluride, Colorado last summer after narrowly avoiding a straight-to-DVD fate. Since then, critical acclaim and marginal box office success in the western world – despite accusations of stereotyping from some critics, including many in India – have propelled “Slumdog Millionaire” to the kind of hit that sold out the theater where we saw it this weekend.
I found it a very nice movie – you’ll judge for yourself. But I also watched it with the baggage that comes as a media member covering the communications technology space, and I couldn’t help but nudge my profoundly disinterested wife when the movie took us inside a large Indian call center where workers used IP telephony and where the film’s main character “clicked to call” his estranged brother.
First, some context. The scene comes at a critical juncture in the film, where a teenage Jamal – separated for years from his brother, Salim, following an ugly scene where the latter gets drunk, demands sex with the woman Jamal loves and embarks upon a thug’s life – leverages call center technology to track down his sibling.
While dozens of others in our darkened theater watched the scene unfold on the big screen, I asked myself: Could this be the first time that VoIP has played a prominent role – or any role – in an Academy Award-winning movie?
Let’s have a look.
We can limit our search of Best Pictures to the 34 winners since 1974 (that’s the year of the production of the film, not the awards year), when the term “Internet” was coined to describe a single global TCP/IP network.
That year, in 1974, “The Godfather Part II” took the prize – a film I admire a great deal, where Robert DeNiro played a convincing young Vito Corleone and Al Pacino, the “family’s” youngest son, memorably told a U.S. senator that both their organizations were part of the same hypocrisy.
But for all its brilliance, “The Godfather Part II” was a period piece and therefore lacked VoIP.
For the same reason, we can cross off “Chariots of Fire” (1981), “Ghandi” (1982), “Amadeus” (1984), “Out of Africa” (1985), “The Last Emperor” (1987) “Dances with Wolves” (1990), “Unforgiven” (1992), “Schindler’s List” (1993) – all four winners from 1995 to 1998, in order “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic” and “Shakespeare in Love” – and, finally, “Gladiator” (2000) and “Chicago” (2002).
That leaves us with 19 Best Picture winners.
While we may admire the way Rohan and Gondor communicate via mountain-top torches (inset left), we must also concede that Middle Earth did not rely on IP telephony communications, which eliminates “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003).
Some films were located in places too remote to support the technology at the time, so we can cross off 1986’s “Platoon” and the epic film that has preserved Meryl Streep at her most beautiful: “The Deer Hunter” of 1978. With no offense meant to the Deep South, we can also place 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy” into this category.
Other best film winners featured characters that apparently lacked access to VoIP– and perhaps, the brains to save money through the technology? – so we can eliminate (post-lobotomy) “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Rocky” (1976) and “Forrest Gump” (1994).
By contrast, three Best Pictures featured immeasurably intelligent people who were crippled by the faults of their virtues, and apparently lacked not only an interest in IP communications, but an ability to execute any meaningful communication at all. There goes “Rain Man” (1988), “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).
We’re down to our final nine. Before we go any further, I’m going to eliminate films that featured divorces and rotary phones: “Annie Hall” (1977), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), “Ordinary People” (1980), “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007).
Of the four remaining films, two include office scenes – and even computers and technology, and some of the best dialogue that’s been written for the big screen – but showcase no Internet-based phone conversations: “American Beauty” (1999) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).
Interestingly, what we’re left with are a pair of films that feature police – part of a rapidly growing public sector that’s relying more and more on IP communications and E911 services: “Crash” from 2005 and “The Departed” from 2006.
I recall phone conversations in “Crash” – a brilliant, intertwining tale of racial tension that’s set in modern Los Angeles – as well as modern homes and offices with computer systems, but no VoIP. And what comes to mind when I think of “The Departed” is text-messaging and anxious cell phone calls – there’s even a scene where the FBI uses location-based services to home in on a crime organization – but again, no IP telephony.
That exhausts our list, but before we get too excited about the chance that “Slumdog Millionaire” will catapult VoIP technology to the stratosphere of Hollywood’s elite, we need to make a disclaimer: We’re not saying that the film accurately depicts the India call center worker.
Indeed, as the chief executive officer of Ramshyam Global Services says in a blog entry here, the movie’s “dingy call center with young Indians slogging it out in American accents” may be an exaggeration.
Most call centers “have very chic, modern, plush facilities where the agents come to work,” the CEO writes. “The whole process is very professional and the atmosphere is anything but dark and depressing, because most call center employees are young graduates and their average age group ranges from 20 to 25 years across the entire industry. With so many young people around, where is the scope for depression?”
I’m not sure what he means there – personally, I find that age bracket terribly depressing, hence the distinctly over-50 crowd at the “Slumdog Millionaire” showing we caught the other night.
I’m in my early 30s, but I hope that VoIP continues its recent reported successes as a technology so that writing about it supports me at least until I can count myself a member of that 50-plus crowd. For that reason – apologies to “The Reader,” “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – I’ll be pulling for “Slumdog Millionaire” on Oscar night.

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Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan

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