Meel Patthar movie review: Meditational musings on the circle of life and the fellow humans we fail to notice
Meel Patthar is teeming with reflections on the new order that will eventually replace the old, the people we ignore until their suffering disturbs our comfortable status quo, despair, fear and the possibilities that open up when we simply let go.
castSuvinder Vicky, Lakshvir Saran, Mohinder Gujral, Gurinder Makna, Daljeet Singh, Akhilesh Kumar, Gaurika Bhatt, Arun Aseng, Pavitra Mattoo, Jibran Dar, Shanti Devi, Mohd. Aamir (aamir Aziz)
languageHindi and Punjabi with some Kashmiri
Watching Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar (Milestone) is like gazing for a stretch of time at a placid lake. Or perhaps a mildly bubbling river. It is meditational. It is calming. And if you are inclined towards water bodies, you might feel you could stare at it forever.
The film’s serene surface mirrors the protagonist’s personality, his dignity camouflaging a roiling churn below.
As if to underline the poetry in his storytelling, Ayr names the man Ghalib, and heralds the deceptive stillness of the narrative by opening on a black frame that lasts close to half a minute.
Ghalib is a senior truck driver whose body is beginning to crack, but has not yet crumbled. He is constantly on the road and we soon learn that he has avoided giving himself a break following a personal tragedy.
The trucking company for which Ghalib works is now being managed by the owner’s hard-as-nails son who values his profit margins more than relationships built over a lifetime. Human beings are boots on the ground for him, and anyone who shows signs of weakness risks being discarded immediately and unceremoniously.
Ghalib, like most people past a certain age, can see his impending redundancy from a distance. He appears not to fall apart like his close friend Dilbaug (Gurinder Makna), but reacts in a manner that belies his collected, dignified exterior all the same.
Ayr’s Meel Patthar is about the Ghalibs and Dilbaugs of the world, and the new order that will eventually replace them. It is about uncertainty and building a life around the thereafter. It is about the inevitable and the peace that comes with acceptance.
Set within a trucking community operating in and around the National Capital Region, the film gives the appearance of featuring little activity. It is, however, bustling with Ghalib’s own timeline and well-rounded storylines for the clutch of people around him. There is the new intern Pash (Lakshvir Saran) who is troubled by the realisation of what his arrival might do to another man’s life (his name too is a bow to India’s literary heritage). There is Ghalib’s neighbour (Pavitra Mattoo) who speaks warmly of the energy she once would expend shovelling endless rounds of snow in Kashmir, but seems as immersed in her current circumstances. There is a young union leader who stands his ground against a hard-hearted establishment despite having so much to lose.
The magnitude of that last character’s rebellion is made all the more glaring by the casting in that role of poet Aamir Aziz – credited here as Mohd. Aamir – whose Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega (It Will All Be Remembered) became a rallying cry for protestors during 2019-20’s CAA-NRC protests that were widely viewed among the country’s liberals as a life-and-death battle for the idea of India as we know it and for India’s Muslim minority.
Ghalib himself is played by the charismatic Punjabi actor Suvinder Vicky who magically melts into his character despite his towering screen presence.
Meel Patthar’s story is by Ayr who co-wrote the screenplay with Neel Manikant, edited the film and – I love this fact since it shows the value he places on detail and finesse – has also handled the English subtitles. The dialogues feature a credible mix of Hindi and Punjabi with a sprinkling of Kashmiri, reflecting the film’s setting and the individuals who populate the central character’s world.
That world tells a tale of the indifference of India’s upper classes and upper castes to the socially and financially disadvantaged, of capitalist enterprise, and ultimately, of human existence itself.
In a country where the higher echelons of society tend to assume that the poor and lower castes are always on the lookout for freebies, Meel Patthar makes a compelling statement through multiple characters that what most human beings want is self-respect, and to be and feel useful.
Ayr first displayed his skill for patient storytelling with his acclaimed debut venture, Soni (2018). He carries forward that film’s legacy with Meel Patthar, which was premiered at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival 2020 and has subsequently travelled to a few festivals before dropping on Netflix this week.
Angello Faccini’s stark camerawork for Meel Patthar captures a wintry, misty NCR of wide open spaces and little colour. His frames and Gautam Nair’s sound design are pivotal to Ayr’s narrative style. The atmosphere of quiet in Meel Patthar is rarely disrupted. Several times we hear a buzz of human beings off screen but the camera avoids showing us the people behind the voices. And except for one very loud instance of aggression, Ayr prefers to have characters inform viewers about acts of violence without actually showing them occur.
The writer-director also has an interesting take on representation in cinema. A Kashmiri family, for one, exists in this story because Kashmiri families exist in real life and ought to be acknowledged, not solely when a film revolves around the state’s restless politics. A woman sarpanch, a woman tyre-repair shop owner, a Sikkimese partner – their mere presence makes a point without screaming it out loud.
Behind its deliberately misleading façade, Meel Patthar is teeming with musings on the circle of life, the people we refuse to notice until their suffering disturbs our comfortable status quo, despair, fear and the possibilities that open up before our eyes when we simply let go.
Meel Patthar is streaming on Netflix.
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