A grey, wintry feeling pervades Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar (Milestone). It hangs heavy in the air as the dense fog on chilly mornings in Delhi’s outskirts where the film is set. The cold also permeates the heart of its protagonist, Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a lonely, ageing truck driver who, despite having driven a record 5,00,000 km, hasn’t moved ahead much in life.
On the contrary, he seems to be resigned to his situation – knowing that while closure for a bereavement may take time, he may become expendable at work any time, such is the factor of obsolescence in a truck driver’s life.
It is a winter of discontent for the workers further down in the trucking industry’s hierarchy as well – the truck loaders are raising red flags of protest, demanding their rightful wages.
Meel Patthar focuses on the travails of the working class in an industry that literally drives the economy but has rarely sparked the imagination of filmmakers for a gritty exploration.
The film had its world premiere on September 3 at the Venice International Film Festival where it is competing in the prestigious Orizzonti (Horizons) section, dedicated to “films that represent the latest aesthetic and expressive trends in international cinema”. It also featured in the official selection of the Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival (usually held in the month of October/November), but the event itself stands cancelled this year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In focusing on the arduous lives of workers in the trucking industry, Meel Patthar introduces us to spaces where Indian films have rarely ventured before, exemplified by the stark “industrial mise en scène” of the transportation zone and godowns in the outskirts of Delhi – a joyless world.
Then there is the larger universe of the truck drivers—the highway liquor shops, the checkpoints where “khaki wale daaku” (cops) extract bribes for no reason, or the puncture-fixing shop run by a feisty woman, a pleasant anomaly in an all too male cosmos. A world captured in its prosaic raggedness.
While dealing with contentious issues, Meel Patthar barely ever adopts a belligerent tone. In Ivan Ayr’s world, less always communicates more. Like his debut feature, Soni, Ayr’s second film also consciously steers clear of any flourishes and arrives at a rare profundity and insight about human nature through his signature minimal aesthetics.
There are terrific markers of subversion in seemingly minor things like the names of the main characters. The elder protagonist is called Ghalib after the celebrated Urdu-Persian poet and humanist, Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan. His young understudy (played by Lakshvir Saran) is named Paash, invoking Avtar Singh Sandhu, the revolutionary Punjabi poet, whose work is compared with that of Neruda and Lorca.
And, in what can only be called a masterstroke by Ayr, Aamir Aziz, the contemporary poet-musician-balladeer, whose protest poetry became an anthem of the anti-CAA/NRC movement last year, plays the role of the labour union leader at the helm of the workers’ strike. A robust yet oblique assertion of the power of poetry to inspire generations across time to raise their voice against injustice.
Poetry is deliberately inserted in an otherwise mundane world of business owners and their workforce, in which male camaraderie between drivers and owners, swings between empathy and bonding and harsh self-interest. Business takes primacy over everything else – you are good as long as you are useful.
Ghalib exemplifies this predicament. Handing over the wrench, the keys and the steering wheel of the truck to someone younger is inevitable, but does that have to turn him worthless? The finality of human obsolescence in a system geared only for profit and the desperation to stay relevant, is the most distressing leitmotif of the film. Ghalib confesses to deriving his very identity from his work, adding, “The helplessness is that this is all I am.”
In highlighting a deep crisis of identity in that one moment, the film starkly parallels Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, and its protagonist’s painful assertion that the country’s welfare system had failed to treat him like a human being.
Meel Patthar tellingly moves on a continuous cycle of loading and unloading goods (burdens of life if you look at it metaphorically) and is pivoted on Ghalib’s persistent lower backache. A number of frames in the film are all about Ghalib walking (at times with the hand clutching his painful back) – towards someone, away from something. It’s as though his ceaseless long strides are a measure of the chronic slog of life.
Suvinder Vicky’s performance resides as much in the weary lines on his face as in the way he carries his lanky frame – weighed down by life, but carrying on, nonetheless. Vicky, as the Indian Daniel Blake, quietly towers over a bleak landscape of drudgery.
Right from the opening sequence, all the way through the film till the end, the camera remains devoted to Ghalib – unswerving in its gaze, following him like a shadow, never letting him get out of the frame for even a moment.
These struggles in the outside world go hand in hand with Ghalib’s inner strife. Ayr poetically brings together a workman’s toil and his personal tragedy. Most poignant are Ghalib’s intimate confessions about not having been able to find a single foothold while speeding on the highway of life – “tike hi nahin” (could not settle) says it all.
In the life he leads, even mourning for a beloved must wait. How can my grief be measured, he wonders; so do we. There are no ready answers. Redemption lies in unburdening to a neighbour he recognises but has never spoken to before.
But before all that, there are other ghosts to be laid to rest. We are still to fathom what went wrong in his relationship. Was he guilty or misunderstood?
“Bhatere meel aane hain abhi” (There are many more milestones ahead),” Ghalib tells his understudy Paash when the youngster encounters the most difficult moment of his life on the highway. No wonder Meel Patthar doesn’t end the journey at any defined destination. It prefers to remain a film about a life forever in transit.
Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).