LIFF 2019 Special Review: The Lift Boy

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Meet Raju (Moin Khan): English Medium school educated and more comfortable in English than in Hindi; taken to wearing sunglasses wherever he goes (even inside); heading off jauntily to check out the results of his latest attempt (his fourth) at trying to pass the engineering drawing exam so he can finally become an engineer; confident in his own sense of self and his worth, and equally confident that he is better than those around him – especially, he is better than his father, Krishna (Saagar Kale), who works as a liftwala at the posh Galaxy Apartments, and his mother, who washes dishes for others.

Arrogance and privilege ooze out of every pore, but we as an audience recognize the signs: Raju is in desperate need of a Life Lesson, and he’s about to get it. As he consoles himself for yet another failed attempt at the drawing exam (watching a movie in a cushy cinema seat with a big tub of popcorn) he gets a phone call – his father has suffered a heart attack. The doctor prescribes bed rest for three weeks; Raju is, much to his dismay, dispatched to take his father’s place in the lift.

Elevators are often used as a microcosm, a model of the larger society we live in, a convenient shorthand through which we can examine ideas, behavior, thoughts and patterns. In The Lift Boy, the enclosed space serves as a means to focus on the main character, Raju, allowing us to examine his life and his beliefs. Raju is a singularly dislikable protagonist: he treats everyone he believes is beneath him with disdain. When his hard-working father asks him to take his lift uniform to be pressed, Raju can’t be bothered to leave the house, just smoothing out the uniform on a bed before hanging it up again.

When he arrives at the Galaxy apartments, he calls the napping security guard a “waste of space”; he can’t be bothered to give the time of day to the servant who shows up for her job at the apartments. And while it’s true that his education does set him apart from all of these people, Raju is completely oblivious to the fact that it’s the hard work of people like his parents that has allowed him the education he has received and the privileges that go with them. Raju takes everything he has for granted, as if somehow they are his due. To add insult to injury, he’s also incredibly lazy, blaming his repeated exam failure on bad luck, though as we come to realize, it’s more about the fact that Raju doesn’t put any effort into anything he does.

And this is true, too, of his time as the lift boy: it’s actually surprising that he turns up for work at all, so appalled is he at the suggestion that an engineer like him (because of course, he considers himself an engineer, even if he hasn’t passed the exams yet) should take up such a menial task, even if only for a short span of a few weeks. Unlike his father, who took pride in putting on his uniform each morning before heading off to work, Raju chafes at the thought of having to wear one, arriving at work in his own clothes, asking the building’s owner (Mrs. D’Souza) if it would be possible not to wear it, and only grudgingly wearing it home after he drops his own clothing in a cleaning bucket. He watches the clock in order to get off work as soon as the time comes, wasting time hanging about instead of finishing his day cleaning the elevator as the job requires.

At times Jonathan Augustin’s film is uneven and lacks a bit of polish, but at the heart of it is the idea of how young people balance the expectations their parents have for them (especially in terms of finding a well-paying job) with their own views of employment as something to find satisfying and fulfilling. Although the film doesn’t always have a firm hand on that theme, it more than makes up for it with the relationship it develops between Mrs. D’Souza (Nyla Masood) and Raju. Mrs. D’Souza is just what Raju needs: a tough, no-nonsense task-master unwilling to let him get away without doing his best, whether it’s the job as lift operator, or that fifth attempt to pass the drawing exam. It’s not that Mrs. D’Souza is without kindness: she encourages Raju’s interest in reading, and, as the building’s owner she permits him to play hooky for an afternoon to accompany her on a trip to pick up vegetables. While his parents simply and endlessly ask Raju if he’s studying for his exam, Mrs. D’Souza wonders what he is doing on this fifth attempt that is different from the previous four, understanding all too well that if Raju relies simply on the luck he puts so much stock in, he will never pass.

In the end, we never do find out if Raju passes his exam, but in some ways that doesn’t matter: Mrs. D’Souza has already prepared us for that when she tells Raju that in life, it’s more about the journey than it is the destination. The journey Raju sets off on with Mrs. D’Souza is the one that will allow him to become someone responsible, respectful, whose life, in the end, does indeed have meaning.

The Lift Boy screens in London on June 21st, 22nd and 28th. The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It starts on 20th June 2019 in London continues until 8th July 2019, at cinemas across the UK. For more on the festival, please visit: http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/

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