Sunday, December 3, 2023

Milestone: A journey with India’s alienated working class

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Ivan Ayr’s second feature, Milestone, perfectly illustrates Marx’s concept of alienation. Man becomes alienated and is no longer free when he performs labour out of coercion rather than freedom and when his objectified labour ceases to exist as his own and belongs to someone else. In other words, alienation can be understood as a state wherein man is engaged in forced labour in order to produce objects that do not satisfy his own needs, but those independent of him. In this context, the existence of alienation and private property curbs man from realising his true nature; that of a species-being who can develop and use his powers to satisfy his needs and those of his fellow-men, and to experience himself as a free and conscious being in the act of doing so. Milestone makes a commentary on the alienated working class of India through the story of Ghalib, a truck driver living in Delhi.  

Ghalib – a tall, big built ageing Punjabi man – works for a transportation company and drives a truck through the day and night. The film opens on a black screen and his coworker says to  him “Paji apna pahla truck hai jo 5 lakh chua hai.” We soon learn that the labourers who load and unload the trucks have gone on strike, and so the drivers have to do this work too.

Ghalib struggles to walk and holds his back in pain. From the first encounter, we see him as a quiet man who speaks economically. His dusky skin has wrinkled over the years of watching the world through the windscreen of his truck. Ghalib’s quietude carries a sense of alienation; he seems alienated from his work and himself but continues driving for miles, tirelessly, as his employers reap the benefits of his labour. 

Ghalib’s world opens up to us gradually. We learn that his wife committed suicide a few months ago and that her family blames him for her death; another explanation for his quiet disposition. While discussing his wife’s matter with the Sarpanch of his village who orders  him to compensate them, he asks “Sarpanch ji, mera dukh utna hi hai jitna inka, koi dukh ko  kaise naap sakta hai?” Without resistance, Ghalib agrees to give them compensation anyway.  

Ghalib lives in a middle-class society in Delhi. Ayr treats the residents we see around the building like acquaintances, but skilfully shows how each person is dealing with some problem or the other, daily struggles. Ghalib’s own house which has sombre blue walls, no family pictures, and minimal furniture is like a self-portrait of Ghalib’s lonesome life. When he comes to his home, he sits in the darkness and wipes dust off the table, showing that he is hardly ever home.

One day Ghalib learns that his friend Dilbaug, another truck driver and shadow of an older,  future Ghalib, got fired by the company because he could not drive at night anymore. Ghalib fears that he will see the same fate. Drunk Dilbaug reaches Ghalib’s house late at night and fights with Ghalib’s Kashmiri neighbour; an extremely understated commentary from Ayr on  Kashmir. Ghalib takes Dilbaug home and Ayr creates one of the most poignant scenes in the film. The two friends sit face to face in the darkness of this empty flat, and a slurring Dilbaug  defeatedly opens up about his frustration and says “koi bhai kisi ko kaha sunta hai, yahin  zamana aa gaya, sunne vala hi nahi hai.” Ayr subtly suggests that people are alienated from each other. All the conditions will be set by the man you work for, and without companionship and freedom, man is transformed into a machine.  

In another conversation between Ghalib and his employer, Ghalib says “Main ye kaam isiliye  karta, kyuki ye meri pehchan hai, bas meri majboori ye hai, yahin meri pehchan hai.” This scene shows how alienating labour that is not a function of freedom or spontaneity is deadening and limits man to his animal functions. He cannot develop his mental and physical capacities. The man is reduced to his labour.  

Ghalib’s employer gives him the responsibility of training a young, new recruit, Pash. Ghalib is very reluctant and passive-aggressive, knowing that this young man could replace him.  Through the film, Ivan Ayr’s gaze points to the real problem of the modern world, where the seed of capitalism has not only created a conflict between the working class and bourgeoise but within the working class itself! Each individual becomes a slave to the capitalist forces.  There is a lack of empathy and generosity, only self-interest. 

Ironically, Ghalib gets into an argument with the leader of the trade union that has gone on strike. Ghalib complains about backache but the union leader, played by Aamir Aziz, defends himself saying “Apna kamar toota hai toh hamara dard yaad aaya hai aapko…” The union leader defiantly says how they are asking for a 2 rupee increase in wages and have gone on strike despite the fact that their homes are being flooded by the monsoon. Ayr creates layers of complexity and shows how in this ugly system the oppressed can also be an oppressor.  

The film has an unpredictable quality, wherein it is hard to judge where it will go next. The camera sticks with Ghalib throughout the film and throws you into his internal world. Other characters who influence him, from his wife Etali to the banker who helps him break his fixed deposit, are not seen but only talked about or heard. Ayr allows the viewer to co-create an image of Etali, using the information he offers, like what her sister looks like and the emotional conversations she had with her neighbour. The union leader embodies an important point that Ayr makes – that if someone sticks to their ideals, the system will chew them up and spit them out. He is the only one who doesn’t sell his morality. We see the union leader in only one scene, but his presence is marked throughout the film. 

Gautam Nair’s sound design is soothing. There is no background score in the film, but surprisingly this helps us become more deeply absorbed in Ghalib’s world. A few sounds make the absence felt like the clock inside Ghalib’s house, truck sounds, breaks and sirens.  An especially jarring moment is when Ghalib turns on music while driving in his truck.  Angelo Faccini’s cinematography is sublime. You live in the foggy Delhi winter and muddy roads outside the transportation department. He captures the realness of these places and treats the usually loud colours of the trucks with a faded softness. The takes are apparently long,  without much cutting, a hallmark of Ayr’s style.  

Ayr closes the film in an open-ended way, as Ghalib talks to Pash’s older sister on the phone and it begins to rain. One can imagine what happened next, but it is not for certain. This is perhaps the most contrived moment of the film, but it works beautifully.  

One of the film’s biggest success is that it doesn’t harbour any illusion and tell us how we can change the lives of these people. The non-preachy quality of the film suggests that even cinema cannot change the lives of people. It paints a poignant portrait of these people’s lives that exist around us; a quite hopeless one but sprinkled with moments of authentic human connection. 

Jashvender is a filmmaker and writer based in Mumbai. He is currently directing his documentary feature on the anti-CAA-NRC movement. In the past, he has worked as an assistant director on films like Manto and Andhadhun.

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