The camera follows Ghalib through most of the 98-minute film. As a truck driver struggling with grief in Ivan Ayr’s ‘Meel Patthar’ (‘Milestone’), that attention seems to have followed the lead actor, played by Suvinder Vicky, beyond the 70 mm. His portrayal of Ghalib has earned him praise from not just leading critics and filmmakers like Hansal Mehta, but also won him an award for best actor at the Singapore International Film Festival’s Silver Screen Awards. The phone has been buzzing ever since the film began streaming on Netflix last week.
The film is about seasoned Punjabi truck driver Ghalib, a widower scarred by his past, against the backdrop of a crumbling capitalistic system. Chandigarh-based Vicky says the character is far removed from the stereotypical image of truck drivers in urban minds — loud, dhaba-type. “He rarely wears a parna and speaks little,” says Vicky. And that is where the challenge for him lay, something he hadn’t imagined when he was offered the role.
“I thought I would have to drive a little and perhaps pretend more,” he says. But the 15-day workshop was an eye-opener. “Driving the truck on busy roads and emoting and conversing with your co-driver at the same time is not easy. I needed a lot of self-confidence.” To get the body language right, he went under the wings of a driving guru in Noida. “A typical UP guy, I knew he could not be Ghalib, but his relationship with the vehicle was something that needed to be understood. I needed to achieve that comfort zone with the truck to make it mine.”
Vicky says his experience of working with Gurvinder Singh in ‘Chauthi Koot’ came in handy. He had played a commoner hounded by cops during the days of Punjab terrorism. The film spoke through its silences; the same seems to have carried on here too. “In ‘Chauthi Koot’, silence created a dialogue. ‘Meel Patthar’ is in the same zone. Ivan is a man of detail. He makes the silence so powerful.”
‘Chauthi Koot’ was his first brush with parallel cinema, a training ground and the turning point in the life of this artiste from theatre and Punjabi films. It got him roles in films like Diljit Dosanjh-starrer ‘Super Singh’ and the second lead in Akshay Kumar-starrer ‘Kesari’. He says the turn his career took with these films, followed by the success of ‘Meel Patthar’, has boosted his energy and he is looking for good roles now. “I have films to show. And ‘Meel Patthar’, besides ‘The Disciple’, is what everyone has been talking about.” He says the success emboldens him to dream big.
However, a Punjabi film is what he would perhaps never say no to. “It is my maa-boli. I have a responsibility towards it. Punjabi films, even those in which I had blink-and-you-miss roles, are the ones that brought me here. I will forever owe my career as much to those roles as to the one in ‘Chauthi Koot’. All these roles are what brought me to ‘Milestone’. They took me to Cannes (the film had premiered in the Un Certain Regard category), the first Punjabi actor to do so.” Incidentally, ‘Meel Patthar’ too opened at Venice Film Festival last year. The milestones on his career graph are certainly getting better with the day.
Life lived on the road
The film follows the journey of seasoned driver Ghalib. As his truck touches the 500,000-km mark — a record at his company — he is struck by a sudden pain in his back. At the same time, he finds himself defending a compensation claim made by his late wife’s family. As Ghalib struggles to recover from his injury, he sees his job slipping out of his hands. The film was shot during the peak of North Indian winter, mostly in the morning, which, director Ivan Ayr says, helped paint a rich industrial mise en scène with the much-needed grey, overcast hue.