Co-written, edited and directed by Ivan Ayr, Meel patthar (Milestone) is a Hindi-language drama about a truck driver who tries to cope with the tragic death of his wife. The film premiered in the Orrizonti (Horizons) section of the 77th Venice International Film Festival, and recently won the Best Film award at the Singapore International Film Festival. I caught up with Ayr over the phone to discuss his sophomore feature, along with his relationship with cinema.
Dipankar Sarkar: Tell me about your background. How did you enter into the world of filmmaking?
Ivan Ayr: I was a cinephile back in my teens in India. But I never thought that I would pursue filmmaking as a career because I thought that the profession is only acceptable to the elite and rich, so it was a far-fetched dream. Although it had occurred to me that, given a chance, I would love to delve into writing and making films. I got an opportunity when I went to the United States to study engineering at San Jose State University in the USA back in 2005. I started helping the students from the film department. As luck would have it, I came in touch with some young filmmakers and assisted them in their projects and learned the nitty-gritty of filmmaking. Thus, I got interested in writing and took a chance to direct my first short film, Lost & Found, with limited crew members — myself, a director of photography, the sound recordist and actors. The film did not do well but gave me exposure, and that’s how I began my journey.
DS: So, how does the participation of an independent film in the Orrizonti (Horizons) section of the Venice International Film Festival help a filmmaker?
IA: Certainly, it does help. It gives the film a lot of exposure internationally. Cannes and Venice are the two big festivals around the world and are covered a lot by the press around the world. The Orrizonti is a competition section for filmmakers who are still very young, who are making experimental and slightly less mainstream films. It’s a prestigious section and gives the film, as well as the filmmaker, credibility. The line up of films in this section is given importance by other major film festivals around the world. It also adds to the overall kind publicity of the film, shall we say. But such international honours does not guarantee that your film is going to be a smash hit back in India. Most of the Indian audiences are unaware of these global events. So, here in India, we have to undertake a lot of effort to make people aware of such competitions and get their interest.
DS: Meel pathar was also selected at the 25th Busan International Film Festival. How different is it from other festivals?
IA: Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer because I didn’t have a chance to attend the festival. This year, Busan happened just for the local audiences. They were unable to invite the international filmmakers — because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were restrictions on traveling. So, the filmmakers weren’t able to present their films and have a Q&A session with the audience members like it used to happen traditionally.
DS: The film focuses on the travail of the working class operating in the transport industry. How did the idea of the film occur to you?
IA: The idea had occurred to me long ago back when I was still in the United States, working. I always found the lives of truck drivers intriguing because there is something ironic about their occupation. A truck driver spends the majority of their life on the road. They see so much. They experience so much. They are probably well-traveled people. But all of this is happening from the trapped box of the vehicle. The irony is one is traveling and yet stuck somewhere within the system, and you are immobile despite traveling. Truck drivers are an essential component of the capitalistic system and yet they are stagnant, as there is no scope for upward mobility. They are seeing so much, driving so much, but not getting anywhere. This entrapment is a mirror to our modern life in a way where we are getting detached from the world that we live in just like a truck driver. So, it’s the whole idea of exploring the life of a truck driver — how do I embellish it and dive into it so that I can make those who are completely unfamiliar with this occupation empathize with this person.
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DS: Could you share the process of developing your idea into a script with your co-writer Neel Mani Kant?
IA: I met Neel during the time of making my debut film Soni, but he was busy with his student diploma film, so he could not get involved. But I remembered speaking to him, and I found that we had similar tastes and sensibilities towards cinema. And it left a pleasant first impression on my mind. Usually, I get involved with a co-writer after finishing my first draft, and I did the same with Neel too. I wrote my draft in English, so I looked for collaborators who are very comfortable and fluent in Hindi. I have stayed away from India for very long, so my colloquial sensibilities are not the same as those living in India for a long period. So, I depend on my co-writer to imagine the scenes in the native language. Punjabi is my first language, so all the dialogues are in that particular language — which is 25 percent of the film — I have written myself. For the rest of the film, I and Neel had worked together, like revisions, fleshing out the characters more, etc. I like my co-writer to challenge my narrative, and that was exactly what he did.
DS: How long did you take to finish shooting the film?
IA: It was about 27 or 28 days. We started around the last week of January and wrapped up by the 20th of February 2020.
DS: That was quick. How did you manage to do so?
IA: Well Soni was even quicker. It was 26 days. The amount of time that we had spent shooting was brief only because we had spent a lot of time rehearsing. The period from the moment we started doing the workshop with the actors to rolling the camera on the shooting floor, we had spent a good amount of time together for two and a half weeks. The protagonist Suvinder Vicky had spent a considerable amount of time learning how to drive a truck. He worked on the body language, attire, etc. So, a lot of time is spent on rehearsing these small scenes so that by the time they arrive on the set, they have already become that person to a large extent. Secondly, I don’t rely on a lot of cuts and prefer to shoot a lot of the scenes in a single take, and if it is well-rehearsed, it doesn’t take very long to execute that particular scene. It was very rare that we had to spend more than one day on a particular scene unless it was a lengthy conversation or involved too many characters. Moreover, it was also because of my DOP Angello Faccini, who came on board well ahead of time, which also helped. We had extensive discussions before shooting and that was helpful. So, it was partly rehearsal and the techniques we had adopted during the shooting.
DS: So, why have the long takes become a part of your aesthetics?
IA: I get asked that question a lot, and there are too many reasons. For Soni, we stuck to that technique throughout the film, but we didn’t approach Meel patthar with the same technique entirely because Soni had a story where I thought that the single take would enhance the realism, and it did, whereas Meel patthar was more conversational, contemporary — and it was less dramatic. So, I thought it would be unfair to follow the same technique for the entirety of the film.
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DS: Do you co-write, direct and edit your films to have creative control over the film?
IA: Yes, absolutely. There is no other reason for me to do all three. Writing is, of course, something I love doing, and it is a process I enjoy thoroughly. Moreover, writing is something I got interested in long before I got involved in filmmaking, and it is my first love. I can’t make a film about a character with whom I haven’t fallen in love, and it generates from the process of writing and re-writing, and that is how I flesh out a character. So, that is a big reason why I write my scripts. Regarding editing, I have this notion that I do not want to be a slave in the hands of a technician. I had learned the editing tools by myself so that I do not have to rely on somebody like an operator who can work the editing system for me. I can sit on the machine and don’t mind my hands getting dirty during the process. Once the first cut is ready, and if I am not completely confident or happy, then I share the cut with a consulting editor and get feedback. And my consulting editor for the film Meel Patthar was my producer, Kimsi Singh, who was giving me very important feedback throughout the editing process. And that is always helpful if you have somebody like that.
DS: What was the particular reason for naming the two characters of the film after renowned and legendary poets Ghalib and Pash?
IA: This is very hard for me to explain, but I will try my best. One of things that I feel as a society — which I have not taken the time to explain in the film, but I hope that when people see the film, it might occur to them automatically — is that [we have] lost the thought to appreciate art and literature, and these names have become meaningless in a way. So, even if you name a character Ghalib [or] Pash, that means so much to you but cannot mean as much or nothing at all to the society at large. It does not even get noticed. Like, in the film, no one asks or registers any curiosity to the character’s name. So, it is a kind of pessimistic and cynical kind of idea towards expressing the society we presently inhabit.
DS: Soni and Kalpana in Soni are two police officers whose objectives are keeping the streets of Delhi safe, whereas Meel patthar deals with the lives of two truck drivers. So, how different was this transition from a women-centric to men-centric theme within the milieu of your cinematic world?
IA: I was aware of this transition, but I don’t think it made any difference in my approach. The most crucial thing between an actor and a director is mutual respect, but it’s the director who has the responsibility of developing it by taking the first steps. Making impactful films about the human condition requires that you respect and recognise the dignity of your actors, irrespective of their gender. Hence my approach towards this was the same in both films. From the standpoint of the story, what matters is whether you’re doing justice to your characters’ emotions. Their hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses and aspirations must be visible in their actions and words. That’s all that matters to me.
DS: What is your plan for the release and distribution of the film?
IA: At the moment, we are just focusing on the festivals. Regarding the release and the distribution of the film, it is a question for the producer, as the director does not participate in the process, usually. I do not have any control or say, so it is the producer who is going to make the final call. Given the difficult times we are in, it becomes more difficult to answer the question because big theatrical releases have been obliterated. People still do not feel comfortable going back to theatre halls. So, I am praying and hoping that in the next few months we get back to normal and the plan for the release and distribution becomes more clear to us regarding which path to take.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.