July 05 2020
‘To Let’ film review: A beautiful portrait of memories
22 February 2019

A moving tale about a family that is in search of a rented house during the IT boom in Chennai

Windows are a recurring motif in Chezhiyan’s To Let, which is aptly titled. They allow viewers to distant themselves from its characters and help structuring our perspective — it all depends on from where you see them. They also bring in a whiff of magical realism to the film and help in critical examination of the characters and their world. The film is filled with several scenes filmed from inside and outside a window. Midway through To Let, a character quotes Charlie Chaplin, explaining how the celebrated artiste turned his tragic life into comedy, to make people laugh. This is exactly what Chezhiyan does with his début film. It’s hard to imagine To Let as a feature film since it’s more of an autobiographical account on the director.

  • Director: Chezhiyan
  • Cast: Santhosh Sreeram, Sheela Rajkumar, Dharun and Aadhira Pandilakshmi
  • Storyline: A moving tale about a family that is in search of a rented house during the IT boom in Chennai

He goes back in time to create a deeply personal story. For one, his protagonist Ilango(Santhosh Sreeram), is from Sivaganga (Chezhiyan’s hometown) and settles in Chennai for work. He’s an up-and-coming director/writer and is consumed by cinema — he watches The Red Balloon and Bicycle Thieves with his son Siddharth (Dharun). His wife Amudha (Sheela, who’s remarkably restrained) runs the house. We know nothing more about Ilango and Amudha, although there’s a casual mention that theirs is an interfaith marriage. The director capitalises on visual storytelling, which is evident throughout. But what’s equally marvellous about To Let is that, every scene acts as a precursor to an impending event, by underpinning a common thread. For example, Siddharth and Ilango play-act as lion and rat respectively. Siddharth jokingly says, “I’ll devour you, dad.” Cut to the next scene, Amudha is summoned by the landlady and is asked to vacate the house. There’s a beautiful stretch towards the end, where Ilango flattens a crumpled paper drawing. This happens right when they eventually find a new house. The subtext in the previous scenes mirror real-life situations, and is oddly satisfying when you think of how it plays out. Chezhiyan may not be an advocate for weaving music into the narrative. But, he brilliantly employs hit Tamil songs to define the emotional status of his characters. For instance, in the beginning, Ilango has an intimate moment with his wife and their romance plays out over the song ‘Oru iniya manathu’ from Johnny. When they go house-hunting, there’s a quiet scene where Amudha shares her dream — of buying an independent house, and the song ‘Maalai pozhudhin’ gently surfaces in the background. Chezhiyan gets it right for the most part. Maybe the writing needed little more polishing while etching out the landlady’s character, who is both juvenile and caricaturish.

To Let has socio-political undertones that question certain societal norms. Take a look at how Chezhiyan establishes the class difference in a single scene. Siddharth peeks through the window. He’s looking at a girl who lives right opposite. There’s playfulness between the two. But it’s framed in such a way that the low-angle shot of the girl indicates her position of dominance. It’s a split-second scene that pays a hat-tip to Satyajit Ray’s Two. And the casting of newcomers makes you buy into their helplessness. You feel for them when someone asks, “Are you vegetarian?” In another scene, a landlord asks, “Neenga yaaru?,” which is inter-cut with a portrait of V.O. Chidambaram Pillai.

Perhaps it’s too early to call Chezhiyan an auteur; he’s just one film old. But the indications — the combination of close-up and wide shots, the frame-within-frame cinematography, the liberal usage of natural light and sound — are strong. And it’s the purest film we had since...Thalaimuraigal (unsurprisingly directed by Balu Mahendra). It’s poignant and evocative at the same time. Take this scene, for example, which is testimony to the fact that To Let is a careful manifestation of art cinema. The couple gets an expensive offer from a broker. They have no other option but to take it. On the way back, Amudha says, “Ilango, innoruvaati andha vazhiya poriya?” They take one last look at the house. By this time, the fourth wall breaks. Everything — her voice, the way the scene is staged and executed, haunts the viewers.



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