Ivan Ayr's Meel Patthar depicts a trope common to Indian art cinema: Bleak portrayals of working-class protagonists
Indian cinema has generally taken upon itself to treat its working-class protagonists as victims, and physical labour as drudgery. This is essentially because the films take up social conflict as their subject and conflict produces victims.
Indian cinema has now started making an impression at international festivals where it is being screened and Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple and Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar (Milestone) are typical examples. The latter film, just released on Netflix, is exceedingly well-shot and such a vivid representation is difficult to imagine from an Indian film a decade or so ago. The film is about a truck driver, and the milieu in which truck drivers operate has perhaps not been so impeccably pictured hitherto. It reminds one of Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969), one of the most visually striking representatives of parallel cinema that burgeoned in the 1970s through state intervention, and featuring a truck driver’s family.
Yet underneath the surface, the film has many of the same problems — chiefly the tendency to see the working-class experience as essentially toil and working-class protagonists as ‘losers’. Indian cinema has generally taken upon itself to treat its working-class protagonists as victims, and physical labour as drudgery. This is essentially because the films take up social conflict as their subject and conflict produces victims.
Some key social conflicts in Indian cinema are between the following groups in which only the victim does physical work for the victimiser/oppressor: peasants and landowners (Mother India, Do Bigha Zamin), capitalists and workers (Namak Haraam), upper-castes and Dalits or Adivasi (Fandry, Sadgati, Ankur, Aakrosh), artisans and merchants (Kanchivaram), and rich people and their servants (Damini, Kharij). One does not get a sense of farmers working in Mother India — it is significant that when one does work, the man has his hands crushed by a boulder — and the same could be said of all of the other films, that physical work is painful. Even Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1984) — about a Dalit dying from overwork doing odd jobs for a priest — is not different. They are similar in that physical labour is portrayed as undertaken only under desperate circumstances. We do not get a sense of the social life of the class outside this drudgery.
In international cinema, however, the lives of protagonists get attention, quite apart from them being victims. The portrayal of conflict with the working class as protagonists is usually accompanied by a sense of the social life of the class, including their work and wherewithal. It would be especially applicable to films set in contemporary milieus dealing with the working class, as for instance Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978) or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). The major strength of Hollywood, as Truffaut noted, was the attention films paid to how work was done and even Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) did this. There are also trucker films that do this and one recollects Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978).
Meel Patthar is different from the other Indian films cited earlier since those pertained to the pre-liberalised era or portrayed socio-political relationships that were traditionally not equitable — like those dictated by caste hierarchy. It pertains to the liberal era in which the market economy determines working conditions. One does not propose that a truck driver’s life would be an easy one but it cannot evidently be reduced to only drudgery and pain. It would have matters of interest in it that would include road experiences across India, the different kinds of markets and merchandise a trucker encountered, or the way one learns to get on and deal with local figures of authority without knowledge of the language. The point is that the truck driver would have access to experience that we have no access to. But it is as though none of this mattered and all we learn in Meel Patthar is of the protagonist’s plight — getting on in years and expecting to be laid off, as if those summarised the truck drivers experience.
In the film Ghalib is a truck driver trying to cope with his wife’s suicide, overworking to do this and afflicted by a perennial backache. An older colleague has been laid off and his own end as a truck driver may not be far off but there are also demands made on him. His father-in-law and his wife’s younger sister are demanding compensation and they seem dissatisfied with what he is offering them. When they ask him for more, he uncomplainingly complies as though offering resistance is not for him. A young intern, Pash, has been assigned to him, which could mean that he will be replaced as well. Meanwhile his back hurts but his bosses continue to arrange trips for him where he needs to shoulder physical loads. The film goes on in this fashion — visually eye-catching but ultimately without much variety. A potentially interesting motif is the fact that while he is Punjabi, his wife’s family is from Sikkim. This suggests an unusual romance and married life since the places are so far apart and culturally so dissimilar. But nothing is made of it and not even a hint given as to his marital problems since Ghalib seems an accommodating person and essentially honourable. This sense of the protagonist-victim being essentially ‘good’ is actually a way of avoiding psychological and social complexities.
In Uski Roti, the wife hears that her husband had a mistress in some town somewhere but Ghalib is given no such vices. My observation here is that when the victim has to suffer hardship as truck drivers apparently do, they would not simply submit, as Ghalib does, but would find outlets or ways of circumventing their situations. These circumventions would lead to drama and suspense, making the film interesting. Guile is something even decent people use because survival is the basic law. Being a determined ‘loser’ when one would naturally maneuver one’s way around situations is hardly being ‘noble’. When the director does not allow for smart conduct on Ghalib’s part, it seems more like a lack of interest in a trucker’s actual problems and their solutions than ‘sympathy’ or ‘humanistic concern’, which is how the film passes off its monotonously hopeless view of the trucker’s life on the road.
Oppression and hardship are not endemic only to India but, by and large, life rarely progresses well for peasants or workers in Indian cinema. As an instance of bleak portrayals of working-class life, few films could perhaps be bleaker than those of Aki Kaurismaki (Ariel, Drifting Clouds) although the tone he maintains is of deadpan humor. Yet, the protagonists of his films try to find ways out of their situations, through crime, if necessary. My own understanding of the habitual pessimism in Indian cinema especially in the social realist genre finds two reasons: In the first place, victimhood is essentialised in the art film as the primary attribute of the toiling classes in the way being romantic is the fundamental attribute of young people in popular cinema. Secondly, the view of physical work owes to a ‘Brahminical’ perspective and is ideological. Artists in India tend to see physical labour as demeaning or hard because the arts are a product of the privileged classes, which are predominantly upper-caste. White-collar work is valued by these classes while physical work is looked down upon. But even if an artist is a Dalit or from a working-class background, he or she has already internalised the dominant way of representation due to the hegemony of the upper classes in the arts, and produces the same kind of ‘Brahminical’ artefacts. What this implies is that the truck driver as ‘loser’ is a product of this ideology.
MK Raghavendra is a noted film critic
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