In a recent interview, director-cinematographer Chezhian says that every film can be brought down to a word, or a sentence. For example, he said Paradesi’s word was ‘Idapeyarpu’. As I walked out of Chezhian’s To Let, I was wondering what this film’s word would be. Globalisation is one word — the film does begin with a card that places it in the immediate aftermath of globalisation. Is it ‘search’? To Let, as the name suggests, is about a family’s search for a house. But none of these words throws its arms around in its entirety. I did find a word that almost serves the purpose — realism. Well, almost.
To Let looks and feels like everyday life. Chezhian seems to have filmed it in natural light, without a second thought about shadows engulfing his actors in a few frames. The effect is grounded elegance. The most interesting thing about To Let is that Chezhian doesn’t shy away from emptying his frames. We only hear voices, but don’t see the people. His camera, for the most part, stands in a corner quietly observing his characters, staying there, even when they move out of that space –almost as if he wants to give them their private moment. It is beautifully close to how we perceive people in real life.
To Let doesn’t have music, but the film has a lively soundscape that acts as a fill-in. While I remotely registered the exaggerated nature of the sounds at places — you hear every footstep, every key jingle — I was equally fascinated by how I didn’t miss music. In fact, the silence further amplified my own mind-voice (similar to Peranbu) that was praying, screaming and talking to the characters on screen. If not anything, it only made me wonder how silence is woefully underused as a sound effect itself in Kollywood.
To Let might be a commentary on several things that inhabit the socio-economic sphere — caste, class, money, ambitions. But I want to talk about the relationship Amudha and Ilango share. The realism just doesn’t stop with filmmaking but extends to the characters as well. Ilango and Amudha aren’t politically correct, but they are veridicial. To Let encapsulates the frustration that seeps into a relationship even when there is mutual respect, love, and support for what a partner does for the other. Ilango is an aspirant writer-director and Amudha is an efficient, budget-managing housewife. Amudha often than not, complains about money and about him not spending enough time for her. “Kadhai la irukaravanga mela kaatara akkaraya, pakathula irukaravanga melayum kaatu,” she says. In a weak moment, she even asks if he can pursue another career for a small time, until they become financially stable, before returning to Cinema. But these are passing moments of emotion. When there is a pressing situation, she asks him to sell her jewels, not his story. Her dream house includes a quiet writing place for him and a marginally spacious kitchen for herself. Similarly, Ilango helps Amudha around the house, dutifully hands over the money he gets to her and relies on Amudha to take care of the finances. But he doesn’t always heed her and also complains how easy it is for her to talk, being in the house. It is fascinating to see how they take out their frustration — Ilango on Amudha and Amudha on her son, Sidharth. But they apologise and make-up. They become each other’s punching bags and also crutches, as they walk hand in hand through the crowding alleyways of life. It isn’t ‘right’ but it is true and authentically reflective of the middle-class household that most of us have watched growing up. And Chezhian finds rooted performers in Santhosh Sreeram and Sheela Rajkumar. If only we can more often find heroines in actors like Sheela (who also had a role in Kumbalangi nights) Tamil cinema would be a much better place. I would have been happier if the depth that the lead characters got had also been given to the house owner who shoos them away, instead of making her a one-note character.
On several occasions, my theatre visits have been ways to distract myself from my life. What does one do when your life gets claustrophobic? I watch a film. I have equated films and stories with long, deep, cathartic breaths of fresh air. But only on rare occasions I go to a theatre to leave my problems but come back carrying their problems. To Let is that kind of a film. Tt shows you that no matter how life gets, there is always a way out. Maybe not the happiest way, but life goes on. We always move on. In fact, life is only what happens between those obstacles.