Cinematographer Chezhiyan’s directorial debut To Let (2019) has had the honor of getting screened at over 100 international film festivals, reaping few awards among them (a rare feat for a Tamil independent cinema). I have anticipated the film’s release from the first-half of 2018 (by the it started the festival circuit tour) and promptly visited a local theater (in the first week of its release) on a hot Sunday morning, only to find 12 people inside the theater. My friend remarked that the giant banner listing out To Let’s participation and awards in international festivals might have scared away the general audiences. There’s some truth in it.
Right from the days, DD aired National Award winning films, the word ‘award movie’ was often treated with distaste and derision by majority of film-goers. But it’s where as a kid I first watched Balu Mahendra’s Veedu (‘House’, 1988), a poetic and plaintive movie on a woman’s struggle (due to red tape, economic problems and other external factors) to build a house for her family. Of course, I wouldn’t have understood the film’s nuances or the character’s conflicts. Yet I remember liking the realism that flowed throughout the picture (a stark contrast to ‘Rajini uncle’ films I used to love) and furthermore Chokkalinga Bhagavathar’s engrossing portrayal of the genial old man has stuck into my mind. To some extent, the humiliations and strenuous efforts of a middle-class family in Chezhiyan’s To Let reminded me of ‘Veedu’, only that the socioeconomic disparities in urban India has grown wider. And getting back to that lukewarm reception and alleged ‘award film’ scare, I think things are changing slowly but steadily. The fact that To Let has released in fair amount of theaters is itself a small achievement (‘Merku Thodarchi Malai’ was another recent low-key Tamil film that I loved watching on the big-screen).
The title card states the film is set in 2007 Chennai, when the IT industry have grown manifold leading to the rise in property rates and housing rents (of course it all took a dive in after the recession). To Let largely revolves around a small, landless, middle-class family. Illango (Santhosh) is an aspiring screenwriter who does small-time jobs (from ads to dubbing) to make ends meet. He lives with his wife Amudha (Sheela Rajkumar) and five-year-old kid Siddharth (Dharun). The crux of the story is simple: the crabby, self-centered house owner asks the family to vacate the house within a month. The couple then goes on a house-hunting spree in a rapidly gentrifying metropolis where it’s ever harder to find decent, affordable housing. Moreover, everything from Ilango’s job, caste to food preference and even their basic showcase of humanity impedes the family’s quest.
Although writer/director Chezhiyan provides a context for the sparse plot in the opening credits, some of the themes he lyrically deals with could be transplanted to any unequal society around the world. Shot only with natural light and littered with static shots that bring forth the authentic, lived-in feel, To Let’s aesthetics has more in common with neo-realism and Iranian cinema. The perfect use of light help create the film’s mood and the rare burst of colors – a flower pot, balloon, kid’s drawing, etc – infuses a poetic rhythm to the proceedings (of course the flower pots, mirror, and balloons pay hefty tribute to New Iranian Cinema’s imagery). Chezhiyan doesn’t dramatically expound the family’s troubles. He rather brilliantly observes the small humiliations and unpleasant impositions, disrupting the family’s private space.
In Matthew Desmond’s amazing and incisive non-fiction book (‘Evicted’) on the close relationship between urban housing rents and urban poverty, I came across this thought-provoking line, “The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play, and question……………. When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised.” In To Let, there’s interesting vignettes detailing how much the house-hunting ordeal subtly affects the kid’s personhood. The way he turns his parents’ experience into a game or the manner with which he draws a picture of a house (his scrawny hand scrawls the words ‘To Let’ into it) poignantly evokes the kid’s reality. Occasionally, we see the kid behind a barred window or within small space, suggesting how much his freedom and artistry are culled by the immediate surroundings. In another moving montage, we see the mortified family repeatedly interrupted by prospective tenants. We repeatedly see the door latches coming undone while head bowed-down, Amudha stands at a corner as strangers enter their house.
The domineering house-owner who literally lives above the family’s rented home, Ilango dubbing for the beaten-up stunt-men for a Rajinikanth masala movie (‘Shivaji’), a newspaper report on astronaut Sunita Williams finishing Boston Marathon on space (whereas a earth-bound family is running for days to find some space to live), the kid’s final artwork of a colorful flower-pot, and many other visual, writing tidbits elevates the movie experience. It could be said the film gets a bit exhausting as the narrative keeps on hitting the sad emotionalities. The sufferings could have been seasoned with little more hope and pleasure. Nevertheless, the convincing, lived-in performances of the three central actors don’t push the emotions into melodrama territory.
Overall, To Let (99 minutes) goes beyond being an issue-based drama without just reciting the inconveniences of navigating the rental housing market. Chezhiyan’s subtly powerful imagery emphasizes on how low-income urbanites are constantly robbed off their self-esteem, freedom, and privacy while searching for one of the barest necessities of life.