Ivan Ayr’s first film, Soni, was composed only of single takes, which lent a buzzing immediacy to the action. His second, Milestone, which premiered in the Orizzonti section at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and is now on Netflix, at first seems to be cut from the same cloth. The opening scene, with Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a truck driver , reaching the warehouse is an unbroken shot: He walks in and out of the garage, chats with colleagues, the hard morning light rendering everything blue and grey. His back gives way loading a piece on to the truck, at which point, after five minutes, the scene cuts.
After the title sequence, the film resumes, a minute-long shot of Ghalib driving his truck, observed from the passenger side. Once the vehicle comes to a halt, he gets out. The camera continues to look at him through the open door; it would require some complex engineering to continue this as an unbroken shot. Ayr teases expectations by holding the shot for a few seconds, then there’s a cut. The rest of Milestone alternates single takes with conventionally edited scenes. This seems to me a mature decision. Soni was a rarity—a technically complex film that felt like a simple one—but to do the same thing twice would come close to a gimmick.
Ghalib is from Punjab but lives in Delhi, alone. He's mostly on the road (when we see him in his apartment for the first time, the bananas have rotted away). He has clocked 500,000km, more than any of his peers. His back is troubling him, yet he plows ahead with work, doing overtime, driving day and night. We learn that this punishing work rate is born of tragedy. His wife, Etali, died by suicide not long ago, after their marriage hit a rough patch. Back in his village, Ghalib sits with the sarpanch and Etali’s father and younger sister, who hold him indirectly responsible for his wife’s death. Ghalib, while maintaining his innocence, offers them a large sum of money as recompense but is rejected. He’s given 30 days by the council to make another offer.
Ayr could easily have made Etali's family's demand something material—more money, land—which would have made the 30-day period a countdown of sorts. Leaving the terms up to Ghalib is an anti-narrative move. It leaves the film somewhat formless, even after the introduction of a green new employee, Pash, whom Ghalib is told to mentor. Ghalib gruffly teaches the young man some of the basics; for instance, don’t show all your papers to highway cops, as this will just make them search the vehicle and increase the bribe amount. Yet Ghalib knows his own job may not be secure if Pash becomes a competent driver.
Milestone hints at larger conflicts, often obliquely. Ghalib’s wife was from Sikkim, his neighbour’s wife is from Kashmir—this could be coincidence, or an indication of the skewed sex ratio in many northern states. Throughout the film, we get glimpses of the divide between the bosses and drivers on one side and the loaders (or “labour”) on the other. They are unionised, so their strikes are an inconvenience for Ghalib, who has to strain his back further with loading. Yet when Ghalib confronts a union leader (poet Aamir Aziz in a fine cameo), we learn that the wage increase they are fighting for is a mere 2 rupees. “At least make our case when you sit across his desk,” he tells Ghalib. “We're not even allowed in the office.”
Suvinder Vicky has been in several recent Bollywood Punjabi films (Udta Punjab, Kesari), and was terrific in Gurvinder Singh’s arthouse Punjabi feature Chauthi Koot. He looks a bit like Alfred Molina; he has the big man’s expressive eyes. Ghalib drapes his sadness like a shawl, taking it with him wherever he goes. The only time he seems slightly happy is when he’s on the road, chatting with puncture repairers, dhaba owners and drivers he knows. Vicky is wonderful in the role, his gruff manner belied by a gentle voice, hinting at the deep reserves of grief in Ghalib and his frustration with his life. “I do this job because this is who I am,” Ghalib tells his boss. “My plight is that this is all I am.”
It's commendable that Milestone doesn’t take its slow burn in the direction of violence—something all too common in Indian cinema. Still, the film’s heaviness holds it back. Ayr’s control is impressive but many of the static frames are dark and just not very interesting (a long conversation between Ghalib and a drunk friend comes to mind). Ghalib’s eventual offer to the family is of a practical nature but has no resonance with the rest of the film. Naming the truckers after legendary poets Ghalib and Pash seem awfully significant—and Ayr leaves it at that. Soni was propelled by incident and conflict. Milestone, for all its formal rigour and moments of observation, stalls by the roadside.