Based on his two deeply empathetic features so far — both of which debuted in the Orrizonti (Horizons) section of the Venice Film Festival — Ivan Ayr likes slow-burn character studies set in the Delhi-NCR region. His first film, Soni (2018), revolved around a female cop who's divorced. His latest, Meel Patthar (Milestone), revolves around a trucker whose wife has died recently. Both stories expand the emotional life of their singleton protagonists with a secondary character (an older female cop in Soni, a much-junior male apprentice here) — but this is not to indicate a pattern. Look beyond the structural (and perhaps coincidental) similarities, and you'll sense two very different tones. Soni was a young film. It simmered with rage. Meel Patthar is more of a sigh, set at the other end of life. If the texture of the earlier film was hard-bitten journalistic prose, there's more than a dash of poetry here. Look no further than the name of the man (played by Suvinder Vicky) whose life we follow: Ghalib.
Early on, when he returns to his village, his pind, one of the elders remarks that he's become a city slicker: "Shehri ban gaya…" Ghalib replies that he doesn't know where he lives anymore. I was reminded of Gulzar's lines from Namkeen, where Sanjeev Kumar played a trucker: "Hum thehar jaayen jahaan, usko shehar karte hain…" Any place they stop is their "city", because their home is the truck. Above the steering wheel in Ghalib's vehicle is a container with a toothbrush. He has a flat back in the real "city", but he hardly seems to live there. The dining table has gathered dust. The fruit he's bought at some point has over-ripened. Everything and everyone around Ghalib (including the wife who slowly withdrew from him, his co-worker with failing eyesight) appears to be a metaphor for disuse, neglect, ageing.
The most explicit metaphor is the nagging pain in Ghalib's lower back. The sturdy screenplay (by the director and Neel Manikant) keeps introducing things that collectively add up to constant unease. Ghalib's masters — the owners of the trucking company — run a tight ship. Clients don't make payments on time. The labourers who load cargo onto the trucks are on strike, demanding a wage hike. Younger men — like Pash (Lakshvir Saran) — are being trained to replace older truckers like Ghalib. (Like Ghalib, Pash knows English. Even the older man's ancillary skills aren't that special anymore.) Many of these people are migrants, "foreigners" from Sikkim, Kashmir, Kuwait, and they sometimes tear up thinking about the home they left behind. (Ghalib sold his ancestral home to buy a tiny flat in the city.) Plus, it's winter, it's freezing.
It would probably have helped if Ghalib weren't such a fundamentally nice man, so accommodating of everything life throws at him. He barely raises his voice, even in arguments. In a profoundly moving scene, a man with two cans of paint lands up at Ghalib's home. Apparently, his wife liked to have the flower pots painted. (That he is learning about this only now says so much about the time he spends on the road and how little communication there was between the couple.) At first, Ghalib turns the man away. I know what he felt: Painting flower pots! What an absolutely useless thing to do! But then, he sees the man for who he is: another daily-wager who's trying to make a living. The flower pots end up getting a coat of paint.
Ghalib has been working night and day, doing "double duty", and his truck has eaten up five-lakh kilometres of road. It's a company record. A friend asks him why he pushes himself so much. Ghalib doesn't reply, but we see that if he didn't spend all those hours in his truck, he might be forced to confront his loneliness. This is probably why the only industry that thrives in these environs is the liquor business. When Ghalib drops off a consignment at a liquor store, he enquires about the adjacent space, which used to be a shop selling musical instruments. It's closed down, of course. Art? What a quaint notion in this place, in these times. The man might have been better off painting flower pots.
The women come off stronger. Ghalib's sister-in-law fights for her rights. The women in an apartment building fight with the maintenance man when the lift doesn't work, and they fight with the man who says he cannot carry gas cylinders up the stairs. The sarpanch in Ghalib's village is a woman. Along the roadside, it's a woman who repairs punctured truck tires that come up to her waist. Even with Ghalib's wife, we are left with the idea of a woman who went ahead and did something. In contrast, look at Pash when he confronts death for the first time. He's shaken, shattered. It's his first, well, milestone on the road of life. It's the beginning of his backache.
I winced at some of the overtly lyrical touches — especially the conversations about "life". They seemed not to fit in with all this unvarnished starkness, which includes the performances and Angello Faccini's cinematography. Some of the exchanges appear almost Gulzar-ian. ("Bura waqt hai ji!" "Achcha nahin raha to yeh bhi nahin rahega!") But slowly, I was sold. Maybe we have to believe there's going to be a rainbow after the rain. The film's most magical-poetic touch is a downpour that connects two distant characters. It's almost something out of myth. And thus it makes sense that a film entirely devoid of a score would — over the closing credits — ripple with the sounds of a Chopinesque piano piece. It lifts the heart, makes it swell. It says it's not the end of the road.