Filmmaker Ivan Ayr spent 13 years in the United States before returning to India in 2019. Much was different – and not only in material terms. Ayr observed “changes in attitudes and emotions”, a “lowering of empathy”. Many works of art being rolled out were more about “making statements” about the creators than about “trying to reach the other person”, he told Scroll.in.
In his first feature Soni (2018), Ayr explored an effort at emotional bridge-building through the intertwined stories of a Delhi police officer and her superior. Ayr’s compelling new film Meel Patthar (Milestone) examines the attempts of an aging truck driver to calibrate the distance he must keep from events and people around him. Ghalib is in his fifties and has been recently bereaved. He finds that a sense of loss is looming in other ways too.
The film’s larger backdrop is a distressed economy that encourages redundancy by privileging younger, lower-paid workers over seasoned employees. The trust that Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky) has built up over decades and the knowledge he brings to his work appear increasingly irrelevant – which is driven home when he is asked by his bosses to train a young recruit, Pash (Lakshvir Saran).
It’s hardly a coincidence that the truckers are named after the poets Ghalib and Pash. “It was initially a pessimistic idea – the idea started out with this notion that the names don’t mean anything anymore,” Ayr explained. “Even if these two men were poets and decided to express the desperate times they were in, would anybody still care?”
At least the film’s writers do. The screenplay, by Ayr and Neel Manikant, subtly and deftly captures Ghalib’s emotional turmoil. Things fall apart but out of sight. A colleague’s summary firing troubles Ghalib, while Pash’s presence suggests to the veteran driver that he might be next.
The Hindi-Punjabi language film had its world premiere in the Orizzonti section at the Venice Film Festival (September 2-12). Ayr’s Soni had also been premiered at Venice in 2018. He couldn’t travel to the Italian city this year because he was caught up with completing Meel Patthar in time for the festival. The only member of the cast and crew who represented the Kimsi Singh production at Venice was actor Lakshvir Saran.
Meel Patthar was filmed in January and February, weeks before the national lockdown because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The film’s quiet and observational style folds in many truths about the struggles of workers in a fast-changing economy that finds new ways to push them to the margins.
“The backdrop is the economic crisis and the implosion of the capitalist system – the system is rotting and imploding, and we are witnessing a meltdown,” Ayr observed. “It’s a crisis that haven’t seen before, but we are not talking about it. The system is contradictory – individuals are such a key part of it but they suffer the most. You are so engrossed and absorbed with your work that you realise only much later that so much has been taken away.”
Ayr first thought of the idea when he was living in the United States, where he worked as an electrical engineer between 2005 and 2018. When Ayr returned to India in 2019, he felt that a story that he had initially thought of setting in America would work in India too.
“The script started kind of pulling me towards it when I came back,” the self-taught filmmaker said. The sub-culture of trucking, marked by irregular hours and the false promise of journeys with fixed destinations “closely resembles life in general”, the 37-year-old filmmaker added. “We are all going places but actually we are shut inside this space and covering physical distances but not really getting anywhere,” Ayr said. “You spent your life in a box and everything is from that vantage point.”
Ghalib is mostly seen in enclosed spaces – in the driver’s section, in the truck terminal that is his workplace, and in his now-lonely apartment filled with reminders of his departed wife.
Meel Patthar has been evocatively lensed by by Angello Faccini, a Colombian cinematographer. Faccini closely follows Ghalib at work, while occasionally opening to include views of Ghalib’s winter light-kissed village in Punjab.
“The idea was to show the intimacy between the driver and the vehicle, the closeness that the driver feels towards this machine,” Ayr explained. “Also, the framing kind of compartmentalises Ghalib’s worldview. There is an entire world out there, and then there is his world. A sense of detachment is built over time, which becomes part of Ghalib’s psychology, perhaps to such an extent that he feels connected to nothing, nether his family nor his village.”
Except in a few moments, there are no grand sweeping shots of Ghalib’s routes, no romanticised depiction of the roads over which he steers his sturdy vehicle. “The temptation to have these really long and wide shots where you see trucks going from one end of the screen to the other – that’s somebody else’s cinema,” Ayr said.
The narrative is solidly anchored by Suvinder Vicky, who has credits in Punjabi and Hindi films and web series. Sometimes cast as a menacing tough, Vicky got the opportunity to show off his range in Gurvinder Singh’s Punjab-set arthouse drama Chauthi Koot in 2015.
“Suvinder first came to my attention in Chauthi Koot – his performance and being stuck with me, and he was the first person I called,” Ayr said. “When I was fleshing out Ghalib’s character, I found that he was becoming a protagonist from a Murakami novel – very passive, responding to what other people were saying rather than driving the conversation. Suvinder’s face felt very powerful and right. He has brought dignity to the character and has displayed skill in restraining himself. It takes a lot to keep the restraint even when there is so much pent-up emotion.”
Both Vicky and Lakshvir Saran, who had a small part in Soni, took lessons in truck driving for Meel Patthar. “The truck went through its own audition,” Ayr said. “We wanted an old-school truck, one with a protruding nose. We looked at a lot of trucks. An entire make-up was done for the truck to make it look the way we wanted. It was a very demanding process.”