A recently widowed Indian truck driver now faces losing his job to a younger man.
Ghalib’s (Suvinder Vicky) back hurts from loading carpets onto his truck. “Seems you’re due for a service,” jokes his older colleague Dilbaug (Gurinder Makna), whose vision isn’t as good as it used to be at night. The Delhi haulage company where they both work is hurting, too; its labourers are on strike (that’s why driver Ghalib had to load his own truck), and the business can only survive by dealing in alcohol. Soon Dilbaug will be fired, and he’ll come to believe he can only survive that through drinking.
Writer-director Ivan Ayr’s second movie, Milestone / Meel patthar, after his acclaimed Delhi crime drama Soni (2018), which won ‘Best Film’ at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival, might sound almost unbearably downbeat. Nearly everyone in it’s beset by tribulations, to some extent, and mild respite’s the best any of them get. Almost the entire movie takes place in cold, grubby workaday locations—like the company’s yard, or Ghalib’s spartan, barely-lived-in apartment, or the cab of his truck. This is as far from the bright, spangly India of mainstream commercial Bollywood as you can imagine.
That said, it’s never depressing, and not only because it refuses to indulge in misery for misery’s sake, but thanks to its quietly engaging style. Unobtrusive and artful compositions by Ayr, aided by cinematographer Angelo Faccini, give plenty of visual interest to the drab settings, and the superb performances (especially from Suvinder Vicky) bring every character’s interactions to life. These are ordinary folk with unglamorous concerns, living in mundane settings, but there’s never a doubt they’re real and complex people worth caring about.
Drawing together a few simple strands to eventually powerful effect, Milestone opens with Ghalib discovering that his truck’s the company’s first to have travelled 500,000 kilometres. This earns him praise, but it’s also the reason the vehicle is wearing out, and in both cases the metaphor for Ghalib’s own age is clear.
He returns to his village, which he’d left at his late wife’s behest to move to the city (“I don’t even know where I dwell any more”), to face the village council: his late spouse’s family, from Sikkim, are demanding compensation for her early death. Eventually they’ll accept his offer only when he adds a valuable alcohol licence to the cash, one of several occasions in Milestone where liquor’s shown as the quick fix people so urgently need, but one which nevertheless won’t solve their underlying problems.
Meanwhile, old Dilbaug is dismissed and the trucking company’s boss asks Ghalib to train young Pash (Lakshvir Saran) and become his “guru”. Around halfway through the movie, Ghalib starts driving with Pash, and a fear that the newcomer will usurp his role is added to Ghalib’s worries. A slightly cryptic conclusion hints at a resolution of this, and the arrival of rain in the film’s final moments—presumably the end of the dry season, the beginning of regrowth—likewise suggests that not everything is drawing to a close for Ghalib after all.
Milestone is a slow-burn movie, then, in which little of great substance ever happens. It’s as much interested in Ghalib’s worries about what might happen, and slightly bemused regrets about what has happened, as in what’s overtly shown on-screen. But nevertheless there are real dilemmas to address (how will Ghalib deal with his wife’s family, will he be fired to make room for Pash, and what are Pash’s own intentions?) and the film’s gradual exploration of them commands attention. Many scenes are enhanced by the looming presence of things left unsaid.
Vicky (who may be familiar to western audiences from his role in 2018’s 5 Weddings) is outstanding in the lead, being resigned, weary, and still… but his impassivity is itself expressive, and we can tell he’s certainly not unperceptive. Makna makes a bittersweet Dilbaug, simultaneously droll and sad, while Saran strikes just the right balance of eagerness and naivety as Pash. He’s very impressed that Ghalib was born in Kuwait, saying he’s never met anyone from a foreign country, but he hasn’t heard of Saddam Hussein. In a smaller part, powerful because she barely speaks a word yet communicates so much with silence, Gaurika Bhatt is memorable as Ghalib’s sister-in-law, angry with loss.
Nobody in Milestone is fully happy (save perhaps for Pash when we first meet him, and that’s only because he doesn’t grasp what life is likely to bring). In the case of Ghalib, for example, his grief is rarely to the forefront it’s always there in the background, and so’s the inescapable fact of his advancing age and his knowledge the world’s changing faster than he can. Yet nobody is entirely at the mercy of their unhappiness either, and Ayr’s movie is concerned with the little manoeuvres they make in the space between contentment and suffering, seeking to slightly alleviate pains or slightly improve their situation without harbouring unrealistic ambitions. Even the goals of the labourers’ strike are small.
“I do this job because this is who I am,” Ghalib says to another character, their conversation accompanied again by alcohol. “My misery lies in the fact that this is all I am.” He is implying that he sacrificed his identity, and no doubt his marriage too, for his work.
Yet maybe by the end of this intensely humanist film, he has realised that he is more than just a truck driver. He’s not a hero (nobody is truly heroic or selfless, he has insisted to Pash at one point) or an upwardly mobile success in objective terms, but he still has worth; there is still value in what he does and who he is. And perhaps that realisation, a hopeful closing note to a movie that is often regretful without ever quite being bleak, is the milestone of the title.
INDIA | 2020 | 98 MINUTES | COLOUR | HINDI • PUNJABI • KASHMIRI • ENGLISH
director: Ivan Ayr.
writers: Ivan Ayr & Neel Mani Kant.
starring: Suvinder Vicky, Lakshvir Saran & Gurinder Makna.