Anyone familiar with Indian highways recognises the distinctive rumble of a truck. It’s a vehicle that seems made for these endless roads, drawing ever closer in the rear-view mirror, shuddering-juddering under its load, and flashing past, leaving a trail of exhaust mixed with dust and, sometimes, a message inscribed on the number plate: buri nazar waaley, tera moonh kala.
There’s no such glib bumper-sticker philosophy in Meel Patthar, an apt name for a film which finds poetry in the prosaic life of a truck driver. It’s no coincidence that the protagonist is called Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), and his reluctant assistant is Pash (Lakshvir Saran): the former has middle age and a persistent backache creeping upon him; the latter, a wet-behind-the-ears fellow, is his eager apprentice.
Ivan Ayr’s debut Soni (2018) focussed on two Delhi-based policewomen dealing with the misogyny entrenched in their male-dominated workplace and in their families. His much more accomplished second feature shows a clear growth in the way Meel Patthar rolls out, unerringly capturing both the decaying big picture as well as the grim detailing of the milieu: the line drawn between those who own the vehicles, and those who load and drive them, is clear — the man who hands out the pay cheque calls the shots. It’s their way, on the highway.
The depiction of the transactional relationship between the owners of the company, the elderly father standing by silently as the brash young son rides roughshod over the older employees, is spot on. As is the loneliness of the long-distance trucker whose home is the road: Ghalib’s face doesn’t reveal much; much more eloquent is the twinge in his lower back which refuses to go away. Both he and his truck have more mileage than anyone else’s, but that’s not gonged to stop the advance of hungry youngsters, unwilling to get their hands dirty but in a tearing hurry to get into the driver’s seat.
There’s more to Ghalib than his truck, as we get to know. He had a wife, a Sikkimese woman, who spent her time waiting for him to return from his unending runs. We are never told how they met. What we see is his coming to terms with her absence: on one of his rare stopovers at his house, a painter of flower pots shows up, saying that it is time to colour the pots in the hue she liked. The manner in which he absorbs the information, and responds, is poignant.
Vicky, who left such a mark in Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot (2015), makes Ghalib his own. Saran is excellent, too, as the youngster struggling between his desire to be nice and the need for paying work, his name a stroke of unintended irony. The original Pash was a legendary Punjabi revolutionary poet assassinated by Khalistanis in the late ’80s. There’s nothing rebellious about this Pash, just an awareness of his youth, and how that should be enough to get him what he wants. The heroism of the older man is what stands out in Ayr’s lyrical, moving film, which premiered at the just-concluded Venice International Film Festival. Stoic yet empathetic, Ghalib is the perfect poet of these dark times.
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