Director: Ivan Ayr
Writers: Ivan Ayr, Neel Mani Kant
Cinematography: Angello Faccini
Edited by: Ivan Ayr
Cast: Suvinder Vicky, Lakshvir Saran
Streaming on: Netflix
Everything about Ghalib suggests he is a poet. He is a loner. He is always on the road. He embarks on endless journeys to faraway destinations. He dines with strangers on the way. He knows no night or day. He wears an unkempt beard. He comes from heartbreak. He occupies a transitional – and therefore philosophically fertile – period in history, with the old being deposed by the young. He tends to punctuate the most mundane moments with profound observations. When called a city-slicker by his rural ex-neighbours, he replies that he isn't sure where he belongs anymore. When his employers fret about falling finances, he sermonises that "if good times pass, bad times will too". When a drunk friend rants about the cries of the marginalised falling on deaf ears, he opines that perhaps nobody will shout if there is nobody left to listen. When an upcoming Punjabi brooder (naturally named Pash) lauds Ghalib's fabled dedication to the job, he disagrees, debunking the myth of his selflessness with, "Door se dekhne se parchhaai bhi paani dikhti hai (Even a shadow is mistaken for water from a distance)". Everything about Ghalib suggests that Ivan Ayr's Meel Patthar (Milestone) is a portrait of a pained poet. But Ghalib is the next best thing: a long-distance truck driver.
Meel Patthar is a film of narrative balladry. In telling the story of a bereaved trucker, it rhymes stillness with motion. Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky) travels everywhere but his face is a verse of nowhere-ness. He drives for a Delhi transport company, but works double shifts to file away the trauma of his wife's death. The road forces him to stay awake and, more importantly, circumvent the nightmares of sleep. What he does for a living becomes what he does to live. He is one of the countless blips on North Indian highways – someone whose peripheral existence is limited to Punjabi pop cassettes, wooden cots, local liquor and the sonic blasts of musical air horns. The film opens with his truck hitting the hallowed five-lakh-kilometre mark, a "milestone" that makes him a reticent legend in his field. But a stiff back emerges; the ache is persistent, almost crippling. The only other veteran driver of the company is fired for nursing the onset of night-blindness. When Ghalib's employers place a young pretender, Pash (Lakshvir Saran), under his tutelage, the old warhorse grapples with the prospect of being put out to pasture. The pastures promise peace, and his pieces can't afford the space.
When I watch an immersive film, I ask myself: is the film about a person or a place? The good ones employ one in service of the other. You see the personal standing in for the political, or the country being scrutinised through the individual. But the great ones add a third dimension: time. Ayr's first film, Soni, accessed an India on the fringes through the embattled eyes of two Delhi police women – and vice versa. But the officers, junior Soni and senior Kalpana, are also inextricable consequences of time. Both of them pursue an occupation of authority not out of some misplaced sense of patriotism or social service, but because of who they are as people in a culture whose prejudice is an accumulation of order. Both exist at opposite ends of the marriage spectrum: upholding the law of the land becomes a coping mechanism to transcend their diminished domestic status. Similarly, in Meel Patthar, Ghalib vents his grief on a job that requires just that. Numbness is his solace. That it entails enabling the heartbeat of the land is almost incidental.
Those like Ghalib and Soni operate in the shadows, on invisible streets and freeways connecting the more visible pillars of civilisation. They are the cogs that keep the wheel running – the backbone of any capitalist system. Ghalib transfers not just goods but the fuel of functionality between cities. He may not look essential, but society staggers to the brink of collapse if he shuns even a single shift of work. The film offers constant reminders of his working-class irony. When a weary Ghalib returns home after a trip, his entire housing society is up in arms due to a malfunctioning elevator. On the ground floor, the middle-class residents scream at a lowly repairman, demanding to know how the elderly will reach the upper floors. On the first floor, a lady screams at a gas agency worker who is refusing to carry the heavy LPG cylinder up to her flat. The chaos is palpable. The very first scene establishes that Ghalib's back problem is a direct result of a labour force strike. With the drivers having to assist with the loading, the young are slowly phasing out the old. When Ghalib approaches the leader of the union, the man taunts him for remembering their worth only when his body buckled under the weight. The screws are shouting, but the machine isn't listening. The duality is unforgiving: the penny drops for the penniless.
As a result, the characters across the film risk confronting the moral vacuum of consumerism: the profession may be indispensable, but the person is not. Ghalib's old colleague aside, even the union leader is sacked by the end. The system does not hire hands, it hires the capacity to need – the need to sustain, survive, flourish or advance. Employers simply transact in the currency of the needy; they replace one language of necessity with another. The reason Ghalib makes for a compelling film is because his need is different from the rest. He can survive without his job. The truth is he can't survive with himself. Unfortunately for him, his escape is also his reckoning.
The metaphors of Meel Patthar are inherent to the film's premise. The physical origins of Ghalib's backache reflect the mental burden of guilt, derived from his wife's untimely demise. The burden of conscience, too, weighs heavy on his fragile shoulders. The film's only sub-thread features Ghalib attempting to face his demons. The panchayat of his ancestral village holds Ghalib responsible for his wife's death, instructing him to pay her family for their loss. The resolution to this thread critiques the numerical nature of grief. It suggests that compensation can involve atoning for the past just as much as acknowledging a future: money cannot heal the absolution of death, but opportunity can respect the ambiguity of life. Ghalib's Sikkimese wife dreamed of thriving in a big city, so it's only fitting that he chooses to repay her sister in terms of progress rather than memory. The close-ups of the sister's young unblemished face seem awkward in context of the film, but they exist for good reason. Ghalib sees in her the clarity of a windscreen – the view of a distant horizon ahead – rather than the caution of a rear-view mirror.
The craft of Meel Patthar brings to mind the visual composition of Soni. Most scenes are long and uninterrupted shots. The cutting, and therefore the distortion of time, is minimal. Most film-makers use single-take moments to channel the thrill of the filming itself into the narrative – the viewer's emotional urgency is then supplemented by the movie's technical bravado. But the immediacy of Ivan Ayr's single takes blends into the moment instead of hijacking it. The shots wear their resilience lightly, the artistic ambition almost as inconspicuous as the Ghalib-sized blurs on our roads. In terms of perspective, the camera replicates the view of the drivers, disclosing a country framed by the silhouettes of passing doors and windows. In one of the film's most striking scenes, we are placed behind Ghalib and Pash chatting in their stationary vehicle. A truck parked in front blocks the sight of the nocturnal highway. As the conversation progresses, the truck upfront leaves to reveal a van full of civilians stopping for a break. The city-slickers amble out of the car and stretch their limbs, before presumably looking for the nearest toilet. What they likely see is an exotic "roadside dhaba" surrounded by sleepy trucks, but not the people inside them. It's an unsettling moment where we – the average urban consumer – see ourselves in the backdrop of a frame, and where the film's characters sense just how imperceptible they are to the people whose lives they augment.
Strange as it may sound, the cast of Meel Patthar is reminiscent of the Oscar-winning Nomadland. Most of the 'actors' seem like real people playing themselves in a fictional character's nomadic journey. Everyone – from Pash to the father-son owner duo to Ghalib's Kashmiri neighbour (a crucial scene featuring her cuts too early) to the loaders and fellow drivers – melts into the remote setting. As Ghalib himself, Suvinder Vicky is as haunting as he is haunted. His deadpan face and sparse voice convey volumes of history – an against-all-odds love story, an adoring wife, a marriage gone sour, a tragedy – without so much as the crutch of music. Or language, for that matter. Meel Patthar is primarily in Punjabi, but such films aren't about the words so much as the pauses that separate them.
Suvinder's performance – inert and eloquent at once – ensures that the central allegory of Meel Patthar is no gimmick. At some level, human life is no different from a long-distance truck journey. Our spines creak under the pressure of society, as we transfer the burden of being from one phase to another. Somewhere between loading and unloading, between the milestones we pass and the destinations we reach, a life is lived. But when the time comes, we dispense our learnings – including our baggage and backaches – to the generations primed to succeed us. They inherit everything but our identity. Some of them become poets, and others, portraits of pain.