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Sorry, Wrong Number
What Crossed Connections and Wrong Numbers in Hindi Cinema (and their disappearance) Tell You About India
In 1984, the year I was born, 0.4 of 100 Indians had a fixed phone line. Today, there are 85 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 Indians. But even this statistic doesn’t quite capture the transformation I have witnessed in my lifetime.
In the eighties, when we called relatives long distance, we had to book a “trunk call” and a manual phone operator - a government employee - would connect us. It took forever to connect, the call dropped often, the line quality was poor, and we yelled just to be heard. Until last year, my then 103-year-old, now late grandfather spoke louder when I called him from the US. I have had more than one hilarious chat with a wrong number, and overheard at least one crossed connection in my teenage years.
These problems were so common, that misbehaving phones found their way into Indian movies. The most famous example from my childhood is from the 1987 movie Mr. India, where Annu Kapoor playing Mr. Gaitonde, editor of the Crimes of India, has a phone so dysfunctional it became a character in the film. And writers Salim-Javed, masters of setting up characters, introduce Gaitonde and his phone through a series of wrong numbers.
This was not the only nod to the controlled political economy of the eighties in Mr. India. The unsavory characters (Daga, Teja, Wolcott) were gold smugglers at a time when gold, foreign exchange, and imports were tightly controlled. And thanks to price and quantity controls on essential commodities, even the local grocer in the movie (Roopchand) was a small time villain and involved with the big time smugglers in black markets of grains and adulteration of food. Sridevi (Seema) using the phone in her editor’s office is not unusual. Most people didn’t have access to a phone connection, and when the movie released there were only 4 million phone subscriptions in India, with another million or so on a waitlist that lasted 4-5 years. In 1910, the US had 11 million phone subscribers!
My parents moved to New Delhi soon after I was born and requested a phone line, which they received after my fifth birthday. While they were waiting, I remember them using my grandparents’ phone to receive messages and make calls, especially when one of my parents was traveling. Despite the wait, I was in a privileged minority, because I had a phone at home even as a child. My sister and I put it to good use in our teenage years.
In a post a few weeks ago, I wrote that two thirds of all Indians have access to a smartphone, and 95% Indians will have access to a smart phone by 2040. But this transformation is not limited to smart phone penetration, cost, quality, and access. It extends to major plot points and tropes in Hindi cinema because of the state of telephones under socialism. And how these tropes different from Hollywood movies and changed after telecom liberalization. The rest of the post tells the story through 18 movie clips.
Crossed connections and wrong numbers in cinema
Imagine you’re trying to call someone you know, and you have dialed the correct number, but instead of hearing their voice, you hear a conversation between two other people you were not trying to reach. Alternatively, your phone rings, and instead of the voice of the person trying to reach you, you hear two strangers having a conversation. This happened because fixed line phones connected calls using wires between phones and phone exchanges, and these wires got mixed up – literally, crossed lines - or were damaged over time.
Indian telecommunications infrastructure was so bad by the 1980s that crossed connections became a trope in Indian films that continued until the turn of the century. In Mr. India, an important plot point is when Sridevi overhears a conversation between Daga (Sharat Saxena) and Mr. Wolcott (Bob Christo) about Hawa Hawaii.
The problem was so rampant, people figured out how to game a crossed connection! And trope flipped on its head in later Hindi comedies. In Dulhe Raja (1998), Johnny Lever deliberately crosses wires at the telephone pole to receive a call from Govinda, stopping the police from demolishing Govinda’s dhaba.
Crossed connections are different from a wrong number, which can happen for many reasons. What the silent generation and/or boomers mean by a wrong number is when they dialed the correct number, but got connected to the wrong line/phone by the phone company. Depending on the decade, this happened either because of a human error made by switchboard operators, or because the automatic switches needed upgrades, or the phone device was malfunctioning. Or maybe all of the above like Mr Gaitonde’s phone!
For the current generation of smartphone users, wrong numbers arise when the person dialing makes an error while dialing the number. In the good old days, this kind of wrong number also happened because of a misprint in the phone directory.
This was the major plot point in another cult comedy Hera Pheri (2000) where Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty, and Paresh Rawal’s characters get embroiled in a kidnapping-ransom call when they receive a wrong number (because of a misprint in the phone directory) from gangster Kabira intended for a rich businessman Devi Prasad.
These tropes were not just used in Indian movies. What is unique about Indian movies is how recently they were used as plot points! In Hollywood movies with similar storylines, the main difference was the decade.
In 1943, Lucille Fletcher wrote a radio play called Sorry, Wrong Number. A bedridden wife of a successful businessman learns about a murder being planned when she accidentally overhears a phone conversation through a crossed connection (more detail involves spoilers and it’s worth watching). It was adapted into a film starting Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster and became one of the highest grossers in 1948. Crossed connections were totally believable in America in 1948. But as technological upgrades were made, overhearing conversations because of a telephone exchange screwup were less common.
By 1960, the plot point revolving around overhearing someone’s conversation moves to “party lines.” Party lines were discounted phone connections for individuals, who would share a single number with multiple phone instruments - one in each subscriber’s room/apartment/business. Introduced to cope with war time shortages, party lines continued to serve those who couldn’t afford their own private line well into the fifties. But they provided no privacy in communication, the others sharing the line could overhear the conversation. Now, overhearing conversations were not phone company errors, but a consequence of shared phones. This was also the story of the romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1960) where Rock Hudson and Doris Day share a phone line/party line (with a few others). Arguments between neighbors destined to turn lovers, misrepresentation, error, heartbreak, all lead up to a happy ending.
Party lines caused problems, like a single user monopolizing the phone, or eavesdropping, and both letters to the editor and the help lines of phone companies were flooded with complaints.
These technological tropes are universal, as culture is deeply entwined with technology and progress. And, in India, crossed connections and wrong numbers were a part of movies until 2000! Socialism led to the persistence for these technological errors for an additional half century.
India’s telecom landscape under socialism
Post-independence India was a federal republic, but in 1950 the Government of India granted itself sole power to legislate on “posts and telegraphs; telephones, wireless, broadcasting and other like forms of communication.” The Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956, listed “telephones and telephone cables, telegraph and wireless apparatus” in the category of industries that only the government could develop. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs (DoPT) was not only a monopoly on phone services, but also the policy maker, regulator, service provider, and manufacturer of telecommunications equipment through Indian Telephone Industries Limited, HTL Limited and Hindustan Cables Limited.
The DoPT took over the infrastructure of the colonial government; and the following decades of terrible incentives for state owned enterprises, lack of competition, and inability to import left Indians with obsolete technology and shortages. State-owned Indian telecoms couldn’t afford to import the latest technology and equipment because it cost the state valuable foreign exchange, a highly controlled resource in India’s closed economy. Under India’s exchange control system, to ensure foreign exchange utilization, exporters were required to surrender their foreign exchange earnings to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) at the official exchange rate. The system allocated the exchange earnings to users through import licensing to domestic producers, who required foreign exchange for importing essential inputs. Through instruments like the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act of 1973, any foreign exchange holding above the permitted limit incurred a criminal penalty and jail time. This system led to an artificially overvalued exchange rate.
Arun Shourie wrote his excellent doctoral dissertation on foreign exchange allocation describing this bureaucratic maze that businessmen were required to navigate. State owned enterprises also got their foreign exchange allocation through this command-and-control system, though with less corruption compared to the problems faced by private businesses. Though the DoPT received priority, poor incentives of government employees to update technology led to delays. The consequence was low rates of call completion, crossed connections and wrong numbers. GP Manish writes that in India “the national average call-completion rate for local calls stood at a low 40 percent in 1984–85, and the corresponding figure for long-distance calls stood at 20 percent in 1985–86. This meant that a subscriber had to make, on average, two and a half attempts to make a successful local call and five attempts for a long-distance one.” These problems were faced by Americans in around WWI but continued in India for eight more decades! And naturally found its way into everyday life and culture.
Another trope I remember from my childhood was using wrong numbers to connect predestined lovers. In Dil To Paagal Hai (1997), Madhuri is convinced she will meet her soulmate on Valentine’s Day (also Puran Maasi), and Shah Rukh Khan gets connected to her mistakenly from a public telephone (remember those?).
In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1995), two characters named Anjali get mixed up by an operator at the hotel - and the friends who will turn lovers manage to have a brief, though frustrating, conversation after decades without realizing it.
Wrong numbers were so common that even faking wrong numbers became a trope. Like the one used by the bride’s sisters in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun to help steal the grooms’ shoes – a common north Indian wedding ritual.
Another problem was poor sound quality and disturbances and dead lines. This led to yet another trope - faking disturbances and poor-quality connections. In this hilarious sequence, Satish Kaushik and Johnny Lever avoid creditors (Rakesh Bedi and Satish Kaushik respectively) by faking poor quality phone connections - the only respite in the otherwise awful, painfully long and boring Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehete Hain (1999).
And I cannot think of comedies from my childhood without Jaane Bhi do Yaaron (1983) at the top of the list. Here is a mishmash of all the phone problems, waiting for long distance calls to connect, poor sound quality, phone line mix-ups used masterfully as a distraction technique in this ridiculously zany scene with Naseeruddin Shah and Satish Kaushik.
These tropes are not just true of Hindi movies, but in all Indian languages. Hera Pheri was adapted from the 1989 Malayam film Ramji Rao Speaking. And Mr. India’s Kannada and Telugu adaptations showed phones that misbehaved. This list is a result of my familiarity with Hindi cinema relative to movies in other languages.
Manual, Automatic and Electric Switchboards
The reason for the poor call completion rate in both early twentieth century America and late twentieth century India was the lag in adopting the latest technology. Initially, errors were largely manual, because telephone companies used humans to operate telephone switchboards (you can see the women working the manual switchboard in the Sorry, Wrong Number clip above).
In the very early years, teenage boys were employed as switchboard operators, but their mischief, inattention to detail, and overall inefficiency got them replaced wholesale by young women. In 1950, about one of 13 working women in the US was employed as a telephone operator. Though women made fewer errors than teenage boys, they were overworked and overwhelmed by calls as the number of subscribers increased, and human error was common. The only solution was to reduce human error move from a manual to an automatic system.
But automatic switchboards were in existence since the late nineteenth century, thanks to Almon Brown Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker and inventor. Folklore suggests that he invented the automatic switchboard to explicitly put telephone operators out of business - not because of high error rates, but because he suspected that one of the telephone operators (in some versions of this lore, the wife of a competitor) was redirecting business from potential clients. After creating a complicated arrangement of mechanical and electrical elements to form a switchboard that did not require a manual operator, he set up the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Co. He even tried to sell it to Bell, but it took time for the world to adapt to the automatic switchboard system. One major reason was that the “telephone girls” provided more than just connecting lines on a switchboard. They took messages, answered client questions, gave suggestions of local businesses, etc.
Another reason was that it wasn’t cheap to set up the automatic exchange and increasing scale didn’t help reduce costs. Counterintuitively, small phone companies were the early adopters of automatic switchboards. David A Price, editor of the Richmond Federal Reserve’s publication Econ Focus explains:
The difference with automatic telephone switching was that the cost structure, perhaps surprisingly, favored the smaller firms with their smaller customer bases. With the electromechanical systems of the day, each additional customer was more, not less, expensive. Economies of scale weren't in the picture. To oversimplify somewhat, a network with eight customers needed eight times eight, or 64, interconnections; a network with nine needed 81.
From Price’s excellent post on the decline of phone operators, I learnt that the early adopters of Strowger’s automatic switchboard were small independent firms, about 6,000 of them, that entered the market within three years of the expiration of Alexander Graham Bell’s patent. Large firms like Bell moved towards automation in response to the rising wages during WWI. And sometimes because Telephone operators going on strike brought telecommunications to a standstill. But the transition took time in the US and was even slower in the rest of the world.
The Strowger’s automatic switchboard reduced error compared to manual switchboards, but with wear and tear, the chances of the mechanical switch dialing wrong numbers increased. Outside the US, where replacement parts for automatic switches were not easily available, maintenance and upgrades were slower and error rates were higher. Crossbar Switches replaced Strowger’s switchboards and the rotary system. And by the 1970s, most large telephone companies in developed countries started their transition to an electronic switchboard system.
When the Indian government took over the telecommunications infrastructure of the colonial government in 1947, there was one phone line per 3,400 Indians. The reason was that the British attitude to phones was not the same as the Americans. Michael Mann argues that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Britain’s elite viewed phones only as a means of administrative and military control in the colonies, leading to a digital divide that took almost a century to bridge by post-colonial governments. The US had more than twice the number of phone connections in 1910 than India had in 1990!
In the fifties and sixties, American firms like Bell were running tests for moving away from Strowger’s automatic, though largely mechanical system to a fully electronic system. The Indian telecom engineers also attempted a similar transition, but the electronic switchboards remained R&D projects.
In 1987, when Mr. India was released, the ‘wrong number’ and ‘cross connection’ tropes worked because only one-tenth of India’s capacity was running on electronic switches. Human error, mechanical error due to old switches, and poor quality phone devices produced by the state monopoly meant Indians experienced more error than call completion. Sunil Mani evaluated the delays in technology adoption in India and wrote that, in March 1987, the 3.98 million phone lines in India consisted of 416,000 manual switches (10 percent of total switching capacity), 1.99 million Strowger switches (50 percent of total capacity), 1.14 million Crossbar switches (29 percent), and 429,000 digital electronic switches (11 percent). Over 89% of Indian phones was operating on technology that was at least half a century old. Asian tigers like Malayasia and South Korea that opened up to global trade decades before India were at 64% and 70% electronic switches. Of the developed countries, Norway led at 100% electronic exchange and the US was at 76% electronic switches.
Another consequence of a state monopoly over telecom was that the number of phone lines in India were very few, especially given the population. Some of this had to do with per capita incomes. But another reason was the price and quantity controls in all aspects required to produce phone instruments, wires, etc. In 1990, India had less than six million telephone connections which served a population of 892 million, with 2.5 million requests on the waiting list, where the waiting time was almost half a decade. Anyone who had a phone provided either a free service or charged for the use of the phone by those around them. Local mom and pop stores with a phone took messages for customers.
The best critique of the phone department encompassing all these problems – poor quality, deadlines, crossed connections and wrong numbers - is in Jaspal Bhatti’s legendary satire Flop Show, in the telephone department episode.
The episode also highlights the bittersweet trauma of someone who gets a phone connection after a long wait, only for it to turn into the neighborhood phone!
Even in 1960, when Pillow Talk was a result of individuals waiting for personal phone lines, Americans had more access to phones than any other country. The US had 49.3 million fixed telephone subscriptions. Jerry Lewis in Bellboy, struggling to figure out which phone ringing, had Americans in stitches.
That year, Americans had 28 fixed phone subscriptions per hundred people, compared to Indians with 0.075.
Fixed telephone subscriptions (per 100 people) in India and the US
Telecom Liberalization in India
When Mr. India was conceptualized and shot in 1985-86, Indian telecom began its long due reforms, though slowly. The first major institutional reform split the DoPT and created a separate department of telecommunications. Large metropolitan areas like Delhi and Bombay were served by the newly structured (still state-owned) Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL); services in the rest of the country remained with the DoT; and international telephone service was under Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL).
In 1987, only 3% of India’s 600,000 villages were connected to the phone network. Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda’s brainchild, the Center for Development of Telematics started developing solutions for areas outside large cities and kicked off rural telecom transformation in independent India. The center invested in R&D around different kinds of electronic solutions for rural areas, small towns, larger city phone exchanges, etc. that suited Indian conditions, population, and weather. The technology took off because the government also reduced its control and allowed private firms to manufacture telephone equipment. In a few years, instrument quality improved and price decreased. In July 1991, the government devalued the currency and started dismantling the industrial licensing system as well as the import licensing requirements for most sectors.
In 1992, the government allowed the participation of private firms in cellular services. The Narasimha Rao government’s National Telecom Policy in 1994 permitted private investment in basic telephone services. Eventual delicensing of the sector and permitting entry of foreign firms saw technological upgrades in phones and switches.
However, this did not immediately spur a response in fixed line and cellular services from private enterprise. As the dominant provider and only regulator, DoT’s discretionary control, and differential licensing policies had advantaged its own services over those of private firms, especially its fixed telephone connections which grew almost five times during the nineties once the industrial licensing and foreign exchange control system was dismantled. For private operators, revenue didn’t cover costs because of other bottlenecks; and because license fees for entry into cellular services were very high. Recognizing these issues and in line with the negotiations that took place at the WTO, the government set up an independent regulator - the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India- to oversee the sector.
Mobile phones were introduced in 1996 but for the first few years they were used by a small and privilege elite, paying exorbitant costs to receive and make calls. The big switch came with the 1999 Telecom Policy introduced by the Vajpayee government. Cellular service providers were allowed to pay license fees as a share of the revenue they earned after the fixed fee was paid upon entry. The government ended VSNL’s monopoly on international services, including internet services, and allowed private operators.
The same year Govinda uses “What is mobile number?” as a pickup line in Haseena Maan Jayegi, through a song (it is still a nineties Bollywood movie). Unlike his previous massy films with Karisma Kapoor, or his character in Dulhe Raja, in this film Govinda is the son of a rich businessman with early access to mobile phones.
Eventually, the government introduced a unified license regime, mobile broadband, and mobile number portability. The cumulative effect of the reforms dismantled the monopoly of the state and encouraged competition in the telecommunications sector. This was also accompanied by rising incomes because of trade and openness and liberalization of industrial policy. The move away from socialism meant private individuals and businesses were allowed to transact more freely, and phones were essential to enable this higher level of social cooperation. Higher income and business revenues meant a swift rise in demand for phone lines, and the market responded.
Telephone lines became available on demand. For decades, there was barely one telephone connection per 100 people. By the mid-nineties, with the entry of private operators too, fixed/wired telephone connections increased and the waiting time had come down from 5 years to 13 months and completely vanished by the turn of the century. Thanks to healthy competition, MTNL’s call completion rates increased to 93.6% in 1997. But phone line penetration in small towns and metropolitan suburbs were increasingly serviced by private firms! GP Manish uses the improvements in telephone quality as an illustration of the qualitative difference between changes in the 1980s (liberalization by stealth) versus embracing markets post 1991, not captured by aggregate GDP and growth figures.
Hera Pheri released in the year 2000, perhaps the last year such a storyline based on wrong numbers was plausible. India’s phone trajectory changed after the New Telecom Policy in 1999. Hera Pheri’s sequel, Phir Hera Pheri (2006) starts out as a story about a bank fraud/scam, more in line with the problems of a transition economy than a plot involving a phone directory misprint! Mobile phones had caller ID and little error. The new trope in Indian films was network problems and dropped calls, a common occurrence in the early 2000s.
Mobile phones in Hindi Cinema
If one were to look for the single most ubiquitous marker of post-liberalization India, it would be mobile phones. Indians leapfrogged from 1940s technology directly to mobile and smart phones post liberalization in the nineties. Mobile phone subscriptions took off after the New Telecom Policy of 1999.
Unlike early years of Strowger switches, cellular technology thrives on economies of scale and post-liberalization India provides that scale. But the technological and cultural consequence was that within a decade, India went from horrible call quality, wrong numbers, crossed connections, and yelling to be heard on long distance calls to virtually error free connections over mobile phones!
Even network coverage improved with fewer dropped calls. Twenty first century movie tropes around cell phones were now based on precision, not error. An early depicter of the change in technology was Ram Gopal Varma, first in Satya (1998) where an ambush is called off last minute using cell phones, described by Uday Bhatia in his excellent book and this essay on how Indian films viewed the transition to markets post 1991. Cell phones were ubiquitous in Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002), a movie on the corporate-film-police-mafia complex. It has an elegant sequence of kill orders issued by competing mafia lords using fixed line and mobile phones.
By 2008, in A Wednesday, a thriller revolving around terrorism in Mumbai, cellphones were used to detonate bombs, communicate anonymously, and negotiate with the police. Burner phones are used throughout the film but the climax (1:18:15) hangs on the precision of a mobile phone call.
In Rajneeti (2010), one of the murders in the killing spree by rival political parties is a car bomb detonated by a phone call. These sequences were not that different from phone activated bombs in Hollywood films like Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Hindi cinema used the same tropes as Hollywood, except now it was in the same decade.
Post liberalization the phone tropes had morphed, based on phones as a precision device! This trope is more familiar to Gen Z and Gen Alpha Indians and those outside India watching Hollywood movies and TV series.
By 2010, India had caught up to most of the developed world in mobile phone penetration. And consequently, Indian movies had also caught up, at least in in telephone tropes.
Mobile telephone subscriptions (per 100 people) in India and the US
Telecom liberalization led to the single greatest revolution in my lifetime in India. There is a good chance that in a few days, almost 900 million Indians wishing each other “Happy New Year” will crash Whatsapp.
Many thanks to Uday Bhatia, Subrat Mohanty and Pavan Jha for sharing their encyclopedic knowledge of Hindi cinema and brainstorming wrong number movie clips :). Film buffs shouldn’t miss Pavan and Subrat’s long form podcast Haal Chaal Theek Hai or Uday’s book on Satya. Also catch Subrat’s lovely chat with Jai Arjun Singh and Amit Varma in this episode of the Seen and the Unseen podcast.
And a HUGE SHOUTOUT to Shreyas Narla, my partner in crime in researching telecom liberalization for the 1991 project as well as helping me unearth movie clips.
This post is not an exhaustive list of these tropes in Hindi Cinema, and as a movie buff I hope others add to the list. I would also love to learn more about how these tropes were used in Indian cinema in other languages.
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