Milestone  Netflix Review – Harsh and humane, Ivan Ayr’s film richly mines inner desolation
The vagaries of the unorganized transport sector bristle through Ivan Ayr’s second directorial feature, Milestone (Meel Patthar). Make no mistake, however, to presume that the film is shaped solely as a fierce, but determinedly narrow salvo against the tyrannies of capitalistic structures. Ivan demonstrates broader ambitions in his doggedly pursued study of the middle-aged protagonist, Ghalib ( Suvinder Vicky), a truck driver from Punjab, working in Delhi. His encounters with personal and professional despair are linked to a wider look at the essential hollowing out of identity.
Ghalib, with his towering, rugged physicality, occupies almost every other frame, in a manner where he’d rather have any onlooker at a distinct remove. His work centers, consisting of a vast network of shipment pit stops and the people he reports to, are a stew of never-ending uncertainty and casual mercilessness. The brutal facts are presented in a frighteningly low-key fashion aligned to the realization that such conditions are indeed the irrevocable natural order of life. Ghalib has persistent back pain. His colleagues display at least some sympathetic curiosity toward him, enquiring on its status, but his employer, Gill, despite learning of it, saddles him with an overkill of duties. Ivan spells out the transacting nature that dictates every relationship.
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Ivan suggests in a matter-of-fact way that the moment any of us show the slightest sign of expendability, those with the upper hand will spit out the disposable. Ghalib’s friend and colleague, Dilbaug, is fired as soon as the boss is acquainted with his deteriorating night vision. The laborers, responsible for loading the baleful of shipment onto the truck, go on strike demanding a pay rise by two rupees. Gill snarls that he would rather have all of their services dismissed than bend to their demands. Dilbaug is instantly replaced by a young driver. The union leader, in a scene-chewing cameo by Amir Aziz who shot to popularity for his protest song ‘Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega’ during the anti-CAA and NRC agitations, relates with impassioned anger how he is unable to attend to his flooded village home because he has to stay back and fight for wages. Ghalib too is confronted with the direct threat of layoff, when Gill assigns him to train the young Paash ( Lakshvir Saran).
His personal life roils with tightly contained turmoil. His Sikkim-born wife, Etali, has committed suicide. We are told in disparate bits and parts, by various characters, a narrative of an embittered marriage, distrust taking root and all cessation of usual marital engagement or concord between him and his wife. The dire, ruthless demands of those in the transport sector and the resultant work strain negating any possibility of healthy, functional family life are well-chronicled in journalistic pieces. Ghalib’s grief and loneliness seep into the bones of the narrative with a gentle force.
There are no insistently designed overwhelming effects in Ayr’s cinema. Amidst his neighbors, who complain of the malfunctioning elevator, Ghalib leads a sequestered existence in his bare-looking flat, much like what Geetika’s character occupied in Ivan’s previous film Soni. He isn’t emotionally connected to his flat. At one point, he mumbles, “I don’t even know where I dwell”. His enduring relationship is solely to the truck that also enables him to look away from the tougher realization of his personal tragedy. He visibly exerts all efforts on climbing the flight of stairs, but he does not participate in the protestations. Ivan peppers in moments of small kindness. When a man comes in seeking to paint flowerpots in Ghalib’s flat because Etali availed of his service frequently, he is turned away initially. Witnessing his crestfallen demeanor, the punishing sight of stairs, and the loss of a guaranteed earning opportunity, Ghalib lets him in. It is a sensitive exchange, rendered in a way of casual generosity.
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A key scene between Ghalib and Dilbaug reveals the overarching concern Ivan is grappling with. Dejected and drunken, Dilbaug asks him, “Does anyone even listen?” Ivan probes sharply an empathy deficit disorder that plagues us. The union leader is barred from any conversation on negotiating the pay rise, ultimately the resistance wears thin. The breakdown of communication also marred Ghalib’s marriage. Ivan plumbs elemental fears and anxieties, unsparing in its ubiquitous clutch, of being stripped of utility and service, feeling with unease the early cracks of outmodedness till it imperils the foundations of one’s existence.
The wonderfully lithe screenplay by Ivan and Neel Manikant is perfectly attuned to fine nuance, anchored in authenticity, belying each fleeting character’s position in the narrative. Ghalib has a Kashmiri neighbor; the roadside tire repairer is a woman who singlehandedly runs the business. The sarpanch is female and she shuts down her rigid fellow village authorities with her practical intelligence. Opposed to them, who jump to bellicose and ill-judged conclusions, she listens carefully to both sides. Ivan integrates such small but significant representations into the narrative seamlessly.
For a considerable chunk, Ivan shoots in long, uninterrupted takes; Angello Faccini’s camera gracefully maneuvers itself to follow Ghalib, as he goes around working with the wench, plowing through the unswerving encumbrance of duty. He is made to squirrel out money for truck maintenance and police payoffs out of his own pocket. Ivan approaches life with a sense of everything, one’s life, identity and being constantly poised on a slippery precipice. Ivan hints at a fundamentally permanent uncertainty of one’s moorings. Faccini captures some stunning wide shots of fog-shrouded rural paths in Delhi, giant trees hovering over isolated landscapes at dawn break. It aids the plangent mood that courses through the entirety of the film.
Suvinder Vicky, who you might recognize from Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot, endows Ghalib’s craggy, subdued presence with a commonplace charisma. In close-ups, his weathered face (bringing to mind Frances McDormand in Nomadland), is a sight to behold. His plodding gait and body language superbly communicate his internal hard-crusted beliefs, expectations and notions. Lakshvir Saran taps a disarmingly honest world-discovering quality of Paash. With a mild hunch, he brings alive the eager, modest zeal of youth, inquisitive about the world, how things work, and wanting to carve his own place in the hustle of everyday life. He exhibits a measured expressiveness especially in the scene where Ghalib compels him to look squarely at the possibility that things and relationships are not as pristine as he’d imagined, in his all-believing naivete.
Milestone (Meel Patthar) culminates with a gush of flash rain, as two strangers connect. In Ivan’s hands, even a banal occurrence like that assumes the texture of something strangely transcendent. Ivan has crafted a dirge for a world past any scruple, leaving the door slightly ajar, open for some smidgen of hope, in this film that is quietly stunning, in every sense of that phrase. The cumulative power is so strong, the aftertaste so subtly potent I kept thinking of what lies next for Ghalib and whether he will pull through, hours after the film was over.