Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar (2020), currently streaming on Netflix, is that rare Indian film of purity and purpose made in recent times. The narrative energy of the film is engineered from the oscillation between movement and stillness in an allegorical expression of life and hope. As the characters confront socio-political powers, they also embark upon a journey that articulates emotional transformation with simplicity, dignity and grace. It is, thankfully, devoid of the patronizing gaze of poverty or misery porn, a trait that has been often exercised by filmmakers whenever the principal characters in the film belong to a lesser privileged and economic class.
Roughly a few minutes into the film, the protagonist responds to an elderly person of the village that he doesn’t even know where he dwells anymore, a statement that illustrates the characters’ existential solitude. He is Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a truck driver by profession working in NCR Delhi and popular amongst his peer as an individual, who is selflessly dedicated to his work. But his placid exterior appears to have hidden a vulnerable and insecure egalitarian beneath. Ghalib is one of the drivers working for a company who has chalked up an impressive 5,00,000 kilometers driven . But there is a major crisis in the company because the laborers are waving red flags and refuse to load their trucks. An old truck driver, Dilbagh (Gurinder Makna), has been dismissed for good on the ground of his weak night vision. Under such threatening circumstances, enters Pash (Lakshvir Saran), a young novice chap, who is eager to learn the ropes of the trade and the owners of the company wants Ghalib to train him. At the same time, Ghalib has to deal with his wife’s Etali death by suicide, and now his greedy sister-in-law and father-in-law, both blame him for the death and will not settle unless a hefty compensation is paid to them to sustain their livelihood. The matter of settlement is handled by the woman sarpanch of the village (Mohinder Gujral), who wants the case to be settled amicably between the two parties.
As the title of the film implies, the film is a metaphorical journey that Ghalib travels on from one destination and situation to the other and one that ultimately heals his wounded heart and rekindles hope within him for betterment. Ghalib is a character who is mirthless, taut, subdued, and speaks only when necessary throughout the film. In contrast, Pash is an enthusiastic guy who has not seen much of the world and acts more on his instinct rather than experiences. As they amble on down the road, the seeming distance between the two primary characters highlights the gaps that open up inexorably as we enter middle age between the past and the present, between the present and an unattainable future, and between insecure individuals who have shut themselves in their impregnable carapaces of meekness and uncertainty. At the same time, trust grows in that silence, with palpable patience leading to an ending where the showers of rains symbolically wash away the remains of the past experiences and signals the beginning of a renewed future. To his credit, Ayr does not avoid open engagement with direct social, political and ideological statements, which foreground the thematic sense of physical distance and estrangement. He has also given the secondary characters specific ethnic identities – Etali belongs to Sikkim whereas Ghalib’s neighbors are Kashmiris – thereby underlining the diverse composition of our society. And whenever a women character appears in the film, she is always shown in the presence of Ghalib, which foregrounds the palpable absence of a woman in his life.
The screenplay of the film, co-written by Ayr and Neel Manikant, is not structured in a popular plot-driven manner but rather layered with an economy that is simple in construction and straightforward in human insight. The movie is a series of unhurried sequences, timed and managed to perfection. Angello Faccini’s sympathetic camera clings all the more insistently to the characters with a no-frills, no-tricks approach and envelops the film with a layer of social realism. There is no fixation on cueing the audience to the setting of the film with fancy establishing shots. Rather, the shots are composed and scaled down to focus on how characters interact with their space. Gautam Nair’s evocative sound design is intensely concerned with absence, loss, silence, and emptiness. The casting of the film also brings a level of authenticity to the viewing experience. But one of the major flaws that is visible within the narrative is the dialogue delivery from some of the characters that appears to be too stagy or too dramatic at times. This does not fit into the overall meditative scheme of the film.
Overall, Meel Patthar speaks volumes about the growing distance that modern urban living is putting between individuals of society, who might otherwise have much in common. It also restores our faith in the possibility of the existence of a sensible and mature cinema. The film had its world premiere at the Orrizonti Section of the Venice Film Festival last year. It has also won the award for Best Asian Film for Ivan Ayr and Best Performance for Suvinder Vicky at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2020. Deservedly so.
Hindi, Drama, Color