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Meel Patthar director Ivan Ayr says he wanted to explore themes about identity, grief, class divide among working class

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What if you are constantly in transit without really moving forward? That’s the thought that inspired Meel Patthar (Milestone), a contemplative and gentle portrait of a “tough truck driver”, says director Ivan Ayr whose film has been the toast of the international festival circuit. 

The film revolves around Ghalib, recently bereaved, middle-aged and the only truck driver to have completed 500,000 kilometres in his company. But along with the milestone comes the possibility that he may lose his job to a younger recruit, Pash.

“The initial idea was to kind of portray the life of somebody who is away from home so maybe feels a sense of detachment from home and also is travelling but not really travelling, moving from one place to another all the time, but not really getting anywhere, stuck inside a compartment with this feeling that ‘I’m in control’ but not necessarily in control of their life and destiny,” Ayr told PTI in a Zoom interview.

Ayr, who made his feature film debut with Netflix’s cop drama Soni, said he found “strong irony” in the idea and decided to explore it in a poetic way, weaving in themes about personal identity, grief, redemption, job anxiety and the class divide within the working class community.

Meel Patthar, which released on Netflix on May 7, was the official selection of the Venice and Busan international film festivals and won the top prize at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival last year. The film’s lead actor Suvinder Vicky won the award for best performance. 

Ayr, who studied electrical engineering before his postgraduate studies in the United States in English literature as well as screenwriting and directing, felt he could connect with audiences through the story.

“Essentially, the idea was that a veteran truck driver who felt things were going fine realizes what he has lost. That sense of loss kind of just dawns on him and he realises it was probably because of his own doing… he kind of finds closure and comes to terms with the fact that he’s not really in control of things. These were some of the threads,” the director said.

Ayr, a nom de plume, began his journey in cinema with the short film Lost and Found and Quest for a Different Outcome before making his feature debut with Soni.

The director said he wanted to explore the “insecurities, aspirations and opinions” of people who spent days covering long stretches of roads in their truck.

“One of the things I wanted to do with the film was to show the tender side of seemingly very tough people. Just because they drive these massive machines and have this skill of being in control all the time and driving night and day, you kind of have this perception that they’re sort of hardened and emotionless folks, which is, of course, not the reality,” Ayr said.

The names of the primary characters (played by Suvinder Vicky and Lakshvir Saran) was deliberate and a “cynical decision”, said the Chandigarh-born director. While one is named after iconic Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, the other recalls Avtar Singh Sandhu Pash, the influential Punjabi revolutionary poet killed by Khalistanis in 1988 at the age of 38.

“The idea was a very cynical one that nobody cares about these names anymore. So I decided that we’re just going to keep those names. I thought it’s better to have people question that decision than serving it on a plate and just explaining them … The idea was very pessimistic, one that they are just ordinary names today and they are,” he said.

Vicky is fantastic in his role of the aging, grieving Ghalib and Ayr discovered him from Gurinder Singh’s Punjabi film Chauthi Koot.

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“It is difficult to find someone in that age group and I wanted a certain look and fluency with Punjabi,” the director said, adding that he convinced Vicky to not touch his beard for a month and also learn how to drive a truck.

One theme Ayr was keen to explore was how the more desperate people are for work, the more susceptible they are to exploitation.

“That desperation is not just physical or materialistic, It could be emotional, it could be just finding purpose in life. That’s why the younger driver refuses to take the money because it’s not money that he’s after, he’s after the dignity and the security that comes with working full time, having your own space and livelihood in a city which is kind of new to you.”

A sub-plot of the film sees daily wagers who load and unload the cargo in the truck going on a strike for a two rupee increase in their wages, something the father-son owners don’t agree to. This story, Ayr said, helped him explore the class divide between the working-class community.

“There are classes amongst every class so it’s important to kind of make that distinction and highlight the strata within the working class. It’s an observation that I have kind of made about our society, which is that we have different levels and at every level you have oppressors. So whoever has the opportunity of oppressing the person below him, will do that,” he said.

Written by Bedika

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