In an interview, you’ve said that the film Meel Patthar (Milestone, released on Netflix on May 7, premiered at last year’s Venice International Film Festival) ‘tells you where you are and how much further you have to go’. Could you explain?
That was about why I’d named the film Meel Patthar (Milestones). Milestones tell you where you are and how far you have to go. But in the film, it’s a weird sort of milestone, because even after 500,000 km, Ghalib has absolutely no idea he’s achieved that. There’s just uncertainty.
Your debut feature Soni (2018) came as a reflection on the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case. How did the idea for your second feature come about?
I was always interested in writing about the world. There are people in my extended family who have been truck drivers at some point in their lives and then went on to become transporters. Growing up, I had heard stories and this whole idea fascinated me — that there is this individual who’s just travelling all his life, but still kind of stuck within this little box. So, travelling but not really, travelling. This idea was an interesting paradox. Living outside India, I got a chance to discover more about this world. A lot of the transportation in the trucking business, especially in the US, is dominated by the Indian community. Originally, the idea was that of an immigrant truck driver. When I moved here (to India) after Soni, the idea then was to work in north India, especially Delhi. Delhi has Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar, which, I think, is the biggest transportation zone in all of Asia. The place is quite appealing just from the image perspective alone. So, the film eventually became a film about a Punjabi truck driver who was working in Delhi.
You named your protagonists after poets Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky) and Pash (Lakshvir Saran), and there’s a cameo by the young poet Aamir Aziz, too. How important was poetry to the film?
Initially, I wanted the driver to be an aspiring poet. But then that train of thought ran a bit hollow. I chose to stick with the names because I wanted to explore this thought, what if nobody mentions their names in the poetic context in the film. The names by themselves are meaningless in the story. Chances are, for the majority of the young audiences, barring those into literature and poetry, these names don’t mean much, they will not know who these names belong to or what they mean. I felt it would be an interesting experiment to see how many people actually notice. But, overall, it was a cynical, pessimistic thought at work that the names are meaningless in the story. As for Aziz, we wanted someone who could play a union leader, who came from Bihar or Jharkhand, because most people who do the loading-unloading work are from there. When we got his (Aziz’s) audition, we didn’t register who he was even though his face seemed familiar. Then, people were not familiar with his poetry yet.
Why aren’t the trucks in your film colourful and quirky like the ones we see on the roads and in Bollywood films?
There are both kinds of trucks in the trade. I decided not to show ostentatiously decorated trucks in the film because Ghalib isn’t a kind of truck driver who’s interested in doing that. He lives with a sense of detachment, does his work, and that’s all. He’s aloof, not interested in making places he inhabits attractive. We had a whole casting process for the truck. Bollywood sees things in a different way and a certain kind of truck driver and bright trucks are a part of their film experience. They choose to portray them in that way: happy, loud and gregarious.
You finished shooting the film right before the lockdown last year. How do you think the truck drivers’ community has been dealing with the situation?
The truckers suffered immensely last year, because everything stopped. I think there was a period of almost two weeks when they didn’t even allow many of the truck drivers to come on to the highways. I don’t know why the migrant crisis surprised so many of us. What were they (migrant workers) supposed to do? This is the kind of thing that happens when you do things just out of pure impulse, without even understanding the consequences for a large majority of the country. This showed that people are only interested in saving themselves, even if it comes at the cost of throwing the ball under the bus. That they (migrant labourers) don’t matter.
With rural-urban migration and woes of the urban working class as the film’s dominant themes, are you critiquing capitalism through Meel Patthar?
I’ve always felt that they (truck drivers) are the backbone of our economy. The transportation business is essentially what makes civil life possible. The whole capitalistic system is still very much dependent on this industry, and yet, the sector ends up being at the receiving end of the injustices of the system. It is ironic that people who are probably at its core, end up becoming probably its biggest victims. A lot of them don’t even realise it until it’s too late. You see that in the film through the strike of the loader (porters) and a veteran truck driver friend of Ghalib being laid off.
But I’ve also tried to highlight other things, like how we expect too much from the urban working class. The scene where Ghalib is trying to walk up the stairs as the lift is out of use, he encounters the lift repairman, and the gas-cylinder-delivery man, I wanted to expose the world that exists outside of Transport Nagar, and how that world is also infested with the same injustices and tension. It’s hard to pin down whose fault it is. It’s the whole complexity of our modern Indian society. These are just observations that I’m just trying to share with the audiences.
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