To Let Review: A riveting social commentary that houses excellent performances
Chezhiyan, who shot to fame writing a regular column in a Tamil magazine about World cinema, clearly knows how to present a global film to the Indian audience
In a bustling metropolis like Chennai, which is constantly expanding and evolving, not every section of the society manages to stay ahead of the curve. There are scores of disadvantaged people, who are left behind. However, the real tragedy of development is the plight of those who are not just left behind, but also forgotten.
While the protagonists in Chezhiyan's award-winning drama To Let aren't exactly forgotten, their plight, which comes as a result of development and assumed economic growth, is generally brushed aside in the name of collateral damage.
Set in 2007, when India was hit by the IT boom, To Let is about Ilango (Santhosh Sreeram), an aspiring filmmaker, who lives with his wife Amutha (Sheela Rajkumar) and four-year-old son Sidharth (Dharun) in a rented home. Their world receives a jolt when they are asked to vacate the house immediately. This one-liner might sound very similar to Balu Mahendra's Veedu (1987), but that's because the problems in finding a place to rent seem to have remained the same over the years. But unlike in Veedu, where a middle-class family like Sudha's constructing their own house seemed plausible, the 'development' in 2007 has all but crushed the middle-class' dream of owning property in the city.
Cast: Santhosh Sreeram, Sheela Rajkumar, Dharun
Tackling the overarching theme of globalisation and housing problems, Chezhiyan takes us through a number of smaller issues with the help of his cast, who deliver nuanced performances that belie their inexperience in front of the camera. I don't remember any other filmmaker, in recent times, who so accurately depicted the lives of the middle-class. The writing clearly reminds us that Ilango and Amutha aren't poor. They have the money, and have the resources to get more. But, with growing prices of commodities, rent, school fees etc... it is always not enough. In other words, they are the proper middle-class.
Be it in Amutha thanking Ilango for taking her for an outing to the beach, or the immaculate noting down of the monthly budget on a diary, or saving that one good dress for an occasion, Chezhiyan paints a genuine picture of events that are typical of a middle-class household. Every performance is noteworthy, especially the kid, through whose eyes Chezhiyan neatly tucks in a message about the impact of an inconsistent childhood. Sidharth, who regularly interacts with a friend living in the opposite flat, finds her missing after a few days, as that family might have moved to another rented house. It is the summer vacations, and he can't wait to go back to school to meet all his friends, but will it be possible, considering the housing problem faced by his parents? He loves drawing on the walls but soon realises that it is something that cannot be done in a rented house. These asides give To Let some much-required breathing space.
Talking about housing problems, the issues that Ilango and Amutha face while looking for houses within their budget reminded me of the Vaadagai Veedu song from Aandavan Kattalai. To Let is an extension of that 4-minute tongue-in-cheek song, but told in a very compelling manner with deliberate pacing. However, since there is no irreverence in To Let, these problems feel like overkill at times, as it almost seems like Chezhiyan had a checklist of sorts and was ticking off each issue with every consecutive scene. But, this feeling is neutralised by the performances of the leads. Be it writhing in the forced humiliation of opening up their doors to prospective future tenants, or expressing the frustration of not having enough money, Santhosh and Sheela's performances are riveting, which in turn, almost masks the lack of well-written secondary characters.
For a person, who grew up on a liberal dose of Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman, used to the composer instructing me on what emotion to feel in a each scene, Chezhiyan's decision to do away with any kind of music in To Let shouldn't have worked. However, the chirping of the birds, creaking of a rusted fan, religious processions at the most inopportune moments, and the occasional Raja song on the radio proved to be as effective as a regular background score. Credit to Chezhiyan, and sound designer Tapas Nayak, for reminding us that real-world happenings do occur in the absence of a mood-shaping piece by a string quartet.
As a film which won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil (2017), and has been to more than a hundred film festivals, winning multiple awards throughout the world, To Let might get written off as one of those 'art films', which might be above the lay person's comprehension. However, Chezhiyan, who shot to fame writing a regular column in a Tamil magazine about World cinema, clearly knows how to present a global film to the Indian audience. And irrespective of the filmmaking style, and the added burden of world recognition, I strongly believe To Let will make a connection with its audience, simply because it tackles a theme that everyone can relate to: Suffering and survival.