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In India, Workers Find Humor in ‘Outsourced’

The laughter was coming as fast as the stereotypes.

Mumbai, India
Neil Beer | Photodisc | Getty Images
Mumbai, India

When a buffoonish American on the NBC show “Outsourced” warned his colleague not to eat the food in the Indian cafeteria or he would be on the toilet for five days, the roomful of workers watching the show in this outsourcing boomtown south of New Delhi erupted in guffaws.

“Indians are very proud of their spicy food and their robust digestion tracts,” one software specialist explained later.

The show’s explanation of the Indian head bobble, an indeterminate sideways nodding gesture that can mean yes or no, prompted chuckles.

And the sight of a silent, slightly menacing Sikh character who kept storming offscreen drew more laughter, as well as comparisons to a co-worker, Angad, who was also watching the show.

He “never sits in his seat, so there is a lot in common,” explained a manager named Nitin S.

“Outsourced,” NBC’s new Thursday night sitcom, is about a Kansas City novelty company that moves most of its jobs to India and sends an American manager to run things.

To see how the show compared to real life, The New York Times took two episodes to an India office of UnitedLex, a company based outside Kansas City, Kan., with most of its employees in India, and asked them to review it.

UnitedLex agreed to participate if employees’ last names were not used, to prevent rival companies from poaching them.

More than a dozen workers crammed into a state-of-the-art conference room this month at UnitedLex’s office here to watch the show, which is not broadcast in India.

They viewed it on a projection screen normally used to videoconference with clients around the world. It did not seem like a great recipe for bridging cultural divides.

While UnitedLex and the fictional company share a Kansas City headquarters, the similarities end there.

UnitedLex does not take orders for T-shirts and fake vomit; it does legal work like intellectual property research and due diligence for some of the world’s largest companies and law firms.

Most of the employees who viewed the show were BlackBerry-toting law school graduates.

“Outsourced,” meanwhile, leans heavily on clichéd notions of India for its humor. The food is disastrous to Western digestive tracts, there are cows everywhere, people have names that sound funny or naughty when Americans mangle their pronunciation, some of the men are sexually frustrated and some of the women need assertiveness training.

Nonetheless, UnitedLex’s employees deemed the show a success. The workers readily acknowledged that there were some kernels of truth to be found among the excesses.

Though UnitedLex may be housed in an office tower that would not be out of place in any American city, employees said that, yes, there are cows wandering around outside, just like in the show.

The only real sour note the sitcom struck was when one character, an Indian assistant manager, mentioned an employee’s “lower caste.” UnitedLex employees around the room seemed to wince collectively.

While caste continues to be a factor in things as varied as marriages and real estate disputes in many parts of India, the outsourcing industry here considers itself a modern meritocracy that has left such old-fashioned prejudices behind.

“You would never talk about that as a manager and an educated person,” said Nitin V., a second manager in the room.

When the first episode was over, Rahul, a vice president in the intellectual property division, called it “hilarious.”

Comedies like “Outsourced” that rely on stereotypes on both sides — poking fun at Indians and Westerners alike — are already shown in India, explained Kanti, the technology and software specialist, and are very popular.

So far this season, “Outsourced” has performed fairly well in the ratings, especially among young viewers, and NBC has already picked it up for the full season. Still, the show has drawn its share of criticism.

Americans of Indian origin say it perpetuates racist caricatures of Indian call center workers. Other Americans are threatening via Facebook and online groups to boycott NBC for what they say is the show’s insensitivity about job losses.

Meanwhile, reviews have been lukewarm, with some reviewers complaining the show isn’t offensive enough.

“Careful — too careful, probably, to be very funny,” Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly said.

While the outsourcing of jobs to lower-cost locations has radically reshaped corporate life in America in the last decade, the phenomenon has rarely been addressed in popular media, and when it is, comedy is not usually part of the equation.

In one exception, “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” once sent a writer with his computer to NBC’s help desk in Hyderabad to meet the woman he had been talking to often on the phone, a skit that managers in India still bring up four years later.

UnitedLex viewers said “Outsourced” was not so much insulting as it was behind the times. Call centers that just take calls from Americans have become a rarity in India’s outsourcing hubs.

Instead, their workers are likely to be white-collar professionals like those at UnitedLex, whose duties can be billing, design or research and development. While call centers still exist, they are often part of a larger business.

“The problem is they haven’t shown what the real India is” when it comes to the outsourcing industry, said Angad, a member of the company’s litigation team. “They’ve only shown what they know.”

Not surprisingly, the show reminds Avneet, a human resources manager, of movies made five years ago. (The sitcom is based on a movie of the same name that won acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006.)

The outsourcing industry has “moved leaps and bounds since then,” she said.

The shift has made Indian outsourcing offices look a lot like companies in the West, complete with leadership training, complicated management structures and 360-degree feedback.

But UnitedLex’s managers acknowledged that such a milieu hardly made for compelling television.

“If it was set up like our office,” said Nitin S., “no one would watch it.”

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