I knew To Let would be celebrated: Chezhiyan
The cinematographer-turned-director talks about his National Award-winning film, which hit the screens last month
Many Indian filmmakers who send their films to festivals bring a different version for their theatrical release. Often, the main difference is the inclusion of more background music and songs. However, cinematographer-turned-
The major talking point has been the absence of music in the film, and in its place, we get natural sounds, captured by sound designer Tapas Nayak. "We had music in our film while shooting to ensure that the debutant actors had a sense of rhythm in their acting. However, I removed it in the final cut. Many of our films crumble if the music is removed. It was a huge challenge, but I wanted to make a film that stood on its legs without the support of music," he says.
If mounting the film without music was a challenge, so was its pacing. Chezhiyan credits his roots as a cinematographer for allowing the director in him to design To Let in a particular way. "Being a cinematographer was a huge strength. For example, in Roma, director Alfonso Cuaron, who also doubled up as the cinematographer, is able to be in control of the space and time of his film. And if you use natural lighting, it automatically brings in realism into the film. Just like music, every scene has a rhythm, and being the cinematographer helps me stage it to execute my vision," says this former assistant of cinematographer PC Sreeram, and further explains that it was important to let the audience know about the pacing very early into the movie, in order to acclimatise them to the extended silences that are incorporated during the film’s later stages. "If you travel at 10 kmph on a race car, you will get tired. But if I am able to tune you that the speed of your vehicle is only 10 kmph, you will then look out the window and relish the breeze and enjoy the scenery. This rhythm needs to be set from the first frame," he says.
Chezhiyan believes that the film winning the National Award for the Best Feature film in Tamil (for 2017), was a milestone, and fetched a lot of attention. "I am still sending my film to festivals. We have won multiple awards, and as you will see, the posters are filled with the laurels this film has won so far," says Chezhiyan, and explains that his decision to do so was an attempt to normalise the film for our audience who may be put off by a ‘festival film’. “Once they see and like such films, they will stop being scared of festival films,” he says.
While Tamil cinema is not averse to experimentations, the big question of commercial viability always looms large over such films. Casting established stars could have assuaged concerns, but Chezhiyan, whose wife Prema financed the film, staunchly believed that stars would have alienated the audience from this story. "Some of my actor friends were interested to be part of my film, but this script demanded newcomers. The moment you cast eyes on Amudha (Sheela Rajkumar) and Ilango (Santhosh Sreeram), you only see them as a married couple who have seen highs and lows in their lives. If I had cast established stars, the connect would have only been 30 per cent. As you have already seen them in other roles, it takes time for those images to get deconstructed," he elaborates.
On the surface, To Let might be a film about a middle-class couple's struggles to find a house for rent, but there are many references to caste and class politics, inter-religion marriages, effects of the IT boom, etc... Peel those layers, and you also have a lovely relationship drama at the film’s core. "The house-hunting is just a thread to pull in the audience. To Let is about human relations, and on further viewing, you might also notice that the film is also about the cultures and values in a typical Tamil family," says Chezhiyan. “Watching a good film is like reading a good book. With repeated consuming, more subtext and layers become evident.”
Considering how Chezhiyan used to write a column in Tamil magazine about world cinema, it would have been easier for him to package a film like To Let to the Tamil audience. "When I started writing 'Ulaga cinema', I saw it as readying a field for cultivation. It was a precursor of sorts for the type of cinema I wanted to make and was preparing my readers for the same. How long will our film students keep watching only European or Iranian films; why not our cinema?" asks Chezhiyan, who sees To Let as an important cultural shift in the dynamics of Tamil cinema.
However, despite his belief that the reception to To Let will spawn many more such films, the question does arise if one film is enough to facilitate such an important movement in our cinema. "It is the responsibility of filmmakers to use a majestic medium like cinema to its fullest. It doesn't mean we should go crazy with the budgets and grandeur, but we simply need to be honest to the medium. If not, it is akin to taking a majestic animal like an elephant and making it beg on the streets. Isn't that criminal?"