Director: Ivan Ayr
Writers: Ivan Ayr, Neel Mani Kant
Cinematography: Angello Faccini
Edited by: Ivan Ayr
Cast: Suvinder Vicky, Lakshvir Saran
Streaming on: Netflix
In Ivan Ayr's second feature Meel Patthar, the protagonist is a truck driver named Ghalib. That little detail encapsulates the juxtapositions that this film throws up – there is little poetry in the lives onscreen but so much lyricism in the way they have been rendered. Without drama, sentimentality or even a background score, Ivan creates a plaintive character study of a man defined by his job.
The truck is everything in Ghalib's life. It reminded me, in the best way, of Fern in Nomadland, whose van is her home. Ghalib has a flat but he goes there so rarely that when he does, he has to wipe the dust off the dining table. When a neighbour apologises for not coming to his house to offer condolences when his wife died, Ghalib replies: "Koi baat nahin jee, mere yahan toh aksar tala hi rehta hai." A taciturn man, Ghalib seems to be most comfortable on the road. Early in the film, we are told that he has notched up five hundred thousand kilometres. Later he tells someone, "I do this job because it is who I am."
But Meel Patthar, which means milestone, is far from a road movie, which romanticises the journey and the learnings from it. Ghalib is yoked to his truck like a cow to a plough. He knows what his future is – his friend Dilbaug has been fired because his vision is failing and he can't drive very well at night. But even if there is an escape, Ghalib doesn't want it. His truck seems to be his most rewarding relationship.
The film begins with Ghalib taking the cover off his truck. Through the film, Ivan frames shots from within trucks – even when men are standing outside and conversing, the frame includes trucks or some part of the vehicle. But these aren't those gaudy, colourful vehicles you might remember from umpteen Hindi films with truck drivers like Mela or Caravan. These are lumbering, drab, motorised beasts, which become a substitute home – Ghalib even stores masala in his.
In his first film, Soni, Ivan revealed himself to be a master of stillness and the slow burn. That continues in Meel Patthar. Using long takes and muted grey-blue tones, Ivan constructs a film that accrues power with each scene. Ivan has little interest in spoon-feeding the audience. In fact, he skillfully withholds information, which only adds to the melancholic mysteries of this film. Ghalib's wife was from Sikkim. It must have been a love marriage but why did the relationship sour? Ghalib mentions that she stopped trusting him but we aren't told what happened. And we could have long conversations about Ghalib's hurting back and what its transference means.
Meel Patthar is set in the NCR region and many of the characters in the film are migrants – Ghalib sold his ancestral home to buy a flat in the city. His neighbour is from Kashmir – she speaks longingly of shovelling snow in the winter. A young union leader speaks of homes in their village drowning in flood waters while they are forced to go on strike to increase their pay by a mere two rupees. But the owners refuse to even let them into the office to have a conversation. This character is played by the poet Aamir Aziz whose 'Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega' became a protest anthem during the CAA-NRC protests.
Like this casting, Ivan and his co-writer Neel Mani Kant expertly weave subversion and critique into the fabric of Ghalib. They insist that we immerse ourselves in this joyless world and consider the cost of capitalist enterprise and the callousness with which those with power and money treat those without it. But there is no belligerence in their argument – it's more like a lament for a world in which, as Dilbaug says, people have stopped listening.
Ghalib is played by the Punjabi actor Suvinder Vicky, who anchors the film with his understated but charismatic presence. His towering frame and body language capture Ghalib's weariness and the harrowing loneliness of the road. Lakshvir Saran, as Ghalib's apprentice Paash, is also very good. Ghalib understands that eventually Paash will take over. Each day brings Ghalib closer to obsolescence. But he also understands that he has no choice but to stay in transit.
Ivan's terrific collaborators – DOP Angello Faccini and sound designer Gautam Nair – bolster his stark narrative style. The result is a film that is contemplative and beautifully disturbing.