The Lift Boy (India, English 2019)

Raju (Moin Khan) ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) and her mother (Shilpa Iyer)

This second film in the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ was screened at HOME in Manchester. It’s a first feature written and directed by Jonathan Augustin who I take to be from the Roman Catholic community long resident in Bombay/Mumbai. Augustin trained at Bournemouth University and after returning to Mumbai he began work in advertising and TV. The background to the production of The Lift Boy is described in the radio interview below. The film dialogue is 60% English, 35% in Hindi and the remainder in Marathi. The film has relatively few ‘sets’ – a traditional Victorian school, a bar/restaurant, a multiplex, a residential tower block in an affluent area and the poorer dwelling where the central character lives. Apart from these there are a few street scenes. Overall the film reminded me of a British TV series from a while back (Mumbai Calling, 2007-8). The cinematography is bright and ‘clean’ but lacking any kind of realist ‘feel’.

The cast includes several first-time performers and some local Marathi actors. That is remarkable as I would say that the narrative is held together by the performances of four or five main characters. The story, sparked by the director’s encounter with a lift boy, features a 24 year-old young man Raju (Moin Khan) who has just failed his engineering drawing exam for the fourth time. He’s already in the multiplex cheering himself up when he learns that his father Krishna has collapsed at work and is in hospital. With his father required to rest for several weeks, Raju is pushed into deputising for him as the lift boy in a residential block in an up-market neighbourhood. Raju has always looked down on menial jobs like operating a lift, thinking it beneath anyone who has attended English medium school. He expects to become an engineer but he really wants to be a writer. But knuckle down he must as the owner of the building Madame D’ Souza, who lives on the top floor of the block, appears to be a stern taskmaster. The only compensation appears to be the presence of ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) the 18 year-old model and actor whose mother is pushing her into a Bollywood career that she’s not sure she wants. The film includes several familiar themes about contemporary young Indians.

Raju at first feels uncomfortable meeting Madame D’Souza and giggles a lot

Raju is a very likeable character who oddly has only one close friend (who has successfully made it through the exams) and no girlfriend. He turns to reading The Great Gatsby sitting on his stool in the lift. He’s at first wary when Madame D’Souza starts to take an interest in him but eventually he realises that he has plenty to learn when he is invited into her apartment. (His mother warns him about getting too familiar with his boss, but don’t jump to conclusions!) The director reveals that his crew found Nyla Masood who plays Maureen D’Souza by following his advice and looking in the shopping malls for what he describes as ‘posh Catholic aunties’. She gives a very convincing performance. The cast developed their performances through extensive rehearsals after working on their own dialogue.

The London Indian Film Festival brochure describes The Lift Boy as “a heart-warming entertainer” and that’s not a bad description. I enjoyed the film and particularly the performances. I did worry that it might tip over into mawkishness. This was mainly because of the music. I don’t really want to criticise but I thought the music was just too much at times and undermined the playing. From the interview I learned it was composed in the US. I think the film is a little too long for the narrative and I’m not sure about the short coda that finishes the film. The story is fairly predictable once you’ve asked yourself the question “how does the son of a lift boy get to go to a fee-paying English medium school?”. On the other hand, the plot did remind me in an odd way of one of the first (and best) English language parallel films, 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981).

The writer-director Jonathan Augustin with his two leads at one of the 21 film screenings.

The radio interview reveals the film’s unique release pattern. In a tie-up with the PVR cinema chain, the film opened on just 7 screens (3 in Mumbai and 1 in each of Pune, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru) with just one evening screening per night over three nights. The film was then pulled. This is a ‘premium release’ strategy aimed at attracting the biggest per screen audience. The film has been sold to Channel 4 in the UK via the Film Bazaar in India and Augustin will be looking for similar deals in other territories. He mainly paid for the film himself and took an active role in marketing and selling tickets. He suggests that he recovered the marketing and distribution costs and that he hopes to recover the production costs from further sales to other territories and TV networks.

Overall, this was an enjoyable watch and an interesting and informative research exercise covering the background. Jonathan Augustin is a bright young man who works hard and deserves to go far.

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