Ivan Ayr’s second feature film opens to nothingness. A black screen stares at you for nearly 30 seconds, almost preparing you for the immersive experience ahead. It is as if Ayr lets you absorb a bit of the bleakness that would seem to define his protagonist Ghalib’s life over the next 98-odd minutes.
Ghalib is a truck driver, portrayed with understated angst by Punjabi actor Suvinder Vicky (he was Joginder in “Chauthi Koot”, for ready reference, among other impressive roles). As the narrative opens, Ghalib is asked to load goods in his vehicle by the depot supervisor. He tries telling he has a bad back, but doesn’t argue on being ignored.
It is a trait we spot in Ghalib repeatedly, as the plot unfolds. He takes a lot of pasting without arguing — yet that’s only when it comes to himself. For, Ghalib instinctively tends to fight for friends and co-workers, too. In his introverted way, he is ready to stand up for a colleague who gets attacked by the labourers’ union or an aging driver who is sacked by the owners because he can no longer see clearly at night.
The storyline (Ayr and Neel Mani Kant) takes time developing Ghalib as a character, and to let the audience understand the character’s mind. This is important because Ghalib rarely speaks or expresses, and one way this is achieved is by letting Angello Faccini’s camera stay with Ghalib in almost every frame of the film (indeed, you would be hard-pressed to recall a single scene in this film without Ghalib). It is a style reminiscent of Ayr’s treatment in his debut feature film, “Soni”, where he used the cinematic idiom to let us fathom how his protagonist, the lady cop Soni (memorably essayed by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), is given to bursts of rage while struggling to cope with a sense of emptiness in her life.
In “Milestone” (also known as “Meel Patthar”), Ghalib doesn’t give in to rage. Rather, he seems withdrawn in a shell even when he is in a crowd. It is a shell that Pash (Lakshvir Saran), a new young recruit at the transport company, tries to crack. Pash is almost star-struck by Ghalib, but the latter has no doubt that the youngster has been assigned as his helper because the owners plan to eventually replace him some day. The situation is a silent comment on how the employer is increasingly becoming an expendable asset, no matter the dedication shown.
For Ghalib, his struggle to survive life’s ruthless vagaries is compounded by the fact that he mostly always tries to keep everyone happy by doing the right thing. It is apparent in the way he gives in without much of a debate when he is directed by the ‘mukhia’ of his ‘pind’ to “compensate” his in-laws for the death of his wife. The loss of his wife is the plot point that singularly drives the melancholy about Ghalib’s existence, we will gradually realise as the screenplay moves.
“Milestone” is nuanced cinema. The film demands an amount of participation on the part of the viewer, as layered storytelling draws you into Ghalib’s intricate world of silences. It is your film if you cherish the aesthetics of the moving pictures.