Song Of The Road:
Ivan Ayr’s debut feature film, Soni, was about a policewoman committed to her work, forced to deal with sexism and entitled Delhi men. The film was an authentically bleak look at the world cops and criminals inhabit.
In his new film, Meel Patthar (Milestone) he brings a similar darkness to the life of his truck driver protagonist, Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), who is quite unlike other truckers seen in Hindi movies–the loud, hard-drinking, hearty men. Ghalib is stoic to the extent of being passive. A man who has hit the improbable figure of 500000 km on his truck’s odometer, with only loneliness and an aching back to show for it. He must have seen and experienced so much, but Ayr does not romanticize the itinerant lives of the men almost always on the move behind the wheels of their heavy vehicles. He leaves a lot for the viewer to figure out. Like how did Ghalib come to be married a woman from Sikkim, what was lacking in the relationship that he spent more time away from home, and she died, tired of the silence of her existence.
Ghalib (a poet’s name for a practical man) had sold the ancestral property in his village to buy a small, dingy apartment in the city, because his wife wanted that; now she is dead and her sister wants her pound of flesh. Ghalib does not contest the unfair claim for compensation. What he is worried about more is the possible loss of his job to an eager young recruit Pash—also named after a poet (Lakshvir Saran)– because, if Ghalib is not a trucker driver, he is nobody. Not a family man, not a farmer—he has nothing to look forward to and nothing to fall back on.
In spite of the emotional turmoil he goes through, there is a serenity about Ghalib. He drinks, but like his only friend Dilbagh (Gurinder Makna), he does not get drunk and rage at the injustice of being sacked. When he is at home, he is surprised at the life around him, that he never seemed to notice—like his wife regularly getting the planters painted. Or the Kashmiri neighbour, displaced from her native land, who was his wife’s confidante in her solitude.
The elderly boss of the transport company, sharing a drink with his employee, is making way for his brash young son, who wants to make changes, and squeeze profits out of a business going through some trouble due to a loaders’ strike and increasing demands by cops.
Experience does not come at a premium in this exhausting line of work, when Dilbagh’s night vision dims, he is easily dispensed with. There are younger men with hunger and need, willing to work more hours for less money.
Ayr and cinematographer Angello Faccini, don’t fall into the obvious trap of showing the beauty of the countryside that the drivers pass through. There is no indication of Ghalib seeking warmth or comfort from others in the tribe, when in reality, thriving commercial ecosystems pop up at truckers’ halts. The film is not so much about Ghalib’s journeys as about his interludes at the uninviting parking bay, somehow mirroring his desolation.
It is interesting to see that the roadside repair shop where Ghalib stops to get a puncture fixed is run by a woman. When did this all-male universe change to accommodate females? The sarpanch of his village, who adjudicates the tussle between Ghalib and his sister-in-law is female. The voice on the phone, that may or may not be Ghalib’s salvation is also female. But the film does not believe in a convenient or happy climax. Ghalib’s story does not end when the film does, to make it easier for the audience to feel reassured or comforted.
Ghalib is a likable, sympathetic character, a dignified man in an aggressive environment, played with deep understanding by Suvinder Vicky, who dominates the screen with his presence. Meel Patthar deserves attentive viewing (streaming on Netflix) and the awards it has garnered so far at film festivals.