All around the world audiences are seeing new films about the precariousness of working-class life, the latest coming from India. Like Jack’s Ride (Portugal), Milestone follows a driver (Suvinder Vicky) facing retirement; like The Bike Thief (UK), we see how his life depends on the vehicle he drives.
Ghalib’s (named after the 19th century poet) truck has just clocked 500,000km, and now he stands to be replaced by a young intern named Pash (Lakshvir Saran). The characters only credit the milestone (Kilometrestone doesn’t have the same ring as a title) to the lorry and disregard this as Ghalib’s achievement, even though every kilometre is marked on Vicky’s remarkably physical performance.
Ivan Ayr’s movie unflinchingly shows the strain of this backbreaking work, the labourers injured both by heavy lifting and beatings from striking union members. With no support or medicine from his employers, Ghalib treats his back injury with a hot towel and by sleeping on the floor. Under pressure from his bosses, the union and the family of his recently deceased wife, Ghalib has nowhere to turn: “I don’t even know where I dwell anymore.”
Milestone is thoroughly depressing, without a glimmer of hope over the course of its 90 minutes. Needless to say, it is worlds away from Bollywood (which is like comparing Ken Loach and Mamma Mia!). It combines the existential truck driving of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer with stark social realism, angrily depicting working conditions for India’s labour force against a backdrop of crime, corruption and death.
A scene in which a body is pulled from a crash is particularly potent in a month when Covid-19 patients have been dying in the roads outside hospitals in the grip of India’s catastrophic second wave, and helps contextualise the crumbling infrastructure that causes such carnage. More generally, it considers the nation’s overwhelmingly youthful population and the older generation facing obsolescence, creating the film’s intergenerational cycle of pain.
Ayr makes the narrative watchable with brilliant landscape cinematography and intimate closeups, seldom straying from Ghalib’s face inside the truck’s cab or in bare rooms. Sometimes viewers don’t even see the other person in a conversation, the focus kept on the driver and the loss of his family, livelihood and identity.
The sheer relentlessness of its turmoil means the film suffers on an emotional level, its bleak tone as unchanging as the roads. But as an exposé of the harsh underbelly of modern labour, Milestone is unshakeable.
Milestone is released on Netflix on 7th May 2021.
Watch the trailer for Milestone here: