When Jerry Seinfeld pitched his concept of televising the everyday life of a stand-up comic, revealing with glee that it would be about “nothing”, it might have sounded like the mad ravings of a lunatic. Why would people watch something that had no protagonist, no story, no purpose ? What the TV networks didn’t realise is that, life without its frills was far more dramatic and emotionally taxing than we gave it credit for. As luck would have it, Seinfeld’s idea was eventually accepted and went on to become one of the longest running hits on American Television, and found its deserving place amongst the classics. Film at its base level actually aligns with this philosophy. In the rigmarole of larger-than-life stories, filming life as it is, is often the most difficult thing to achieve. With fiction, a film-maker works in the comfort zone of creative liberty, but when he has to recreate real life, he has to be an acute observer, a savant who sees the minutiae of mundaneness that surrounds us, the crushing tedium that puts wrinkles on our faces, and the unspoken pain that eats us from inside. These are things that a film-maker has to find for himself as he would find them in no film-school. And when he succeeds, the Film becomes a hyper-realistic painting which looks like a photograph.
Chezhiyan’s National Award winning Tamil film To Let comes astoundingly close to this ideal portraiture that we often fantasize about but rarely see. It tells a poignant story of a small family who have been asked to vacate their tiny rented house, and must find a new one in a few weeks. Ilango is a struggling screen-writer who doesn’t have a steady income for the day-to-day expenses of his family. His wife Amudha is a conscientious woman who makes sure that while their daily needs are met, they are also putting away some money into their savings. She tucks away a few hundred rupee bills between the pages of books, while the others she hands to her son Siddhu (Siddharth) who playfully puts them into a clay piggy bank. Despite their meagre means, Ilango and Amudha are doting parents who play along with their son’s whims. Chezhiyan takes care in bringing that familiar “lived-in” look to the house with subtle elements that feel so natural that you could swear that they were voyeurs filming a real family.
Chezhiyan takes care in bringing that familiar “lived-in” look to the house with subtle elements that feel so natural that you could swear that they were voyeurs filming a real family.
Flaking walls lined with Siddhu’s crayon drawings give way to a cramped kitchen where Amudha prepares dosai while telling Ilango how the landlady had talked down to her as if she were her maid-servant. Ilango, who has just de-clogged the Indian toilet, consoles her and promises that he would have a chat with her one day. They were paying rent after all, and they had every right to be treated with respect. As the day of eviction comes closer, Ilango is worried. He has already seen a few houses but they are all in a worse condition than the house they had lived in. The houses that are promising are unaffordable. Every night as he lay down on his bed with the mountain of tension weighing over him, Amudha would share her dreams with him [not sic]– “In this life, just give me a house. Nothing else. Just a house.” At first it seems unreasonable, looking at their financial status but then you realise that she just wants a better life for her family, and a house is just a metaphor. In her way, she shows him a vision that he would never dare approach. Sometimes he just “Hmm”s but sometimes he snaps back at her. Ilango loves Amudha dearly but the realization that he was not being able to provide them with security makes him bitter.
Their predicament is reflected in their surroundings through subtle elements. In one scene, Siddhu brings a crumpled sheet to his father who is ironing clothes, and places it right on the table. Humouring him, Ilango irons the wrinkles that seem unfixable. As the paper becomes a little less crumpled, we see the child-like drawing which has a house with a father, a mother and a child – obviously an image of themselves. A tiny board hangs on the door of that house saying – ‘To Let’. In another scene, we see a sparrow that often flies into their home. While working on a script, Ilango hears an audible chirp and a violent crank. The bird had hit the fan. As the feathers rain over his head, he slumps down with his palm on his head – as if somehow his misfortune had been the cause of the little bird’s death. That point on, every single dialogue in the house is underscored by the creaking of the fan until the end of the film. As people come to see their house, called by their landlady, we watch them become conscious as if their household were being invaded. In one scene, Ilango and Amudha are having their lunch on the floor, as is common in many homes in India, and visitors knock on their door. They push their food aside and stand awkwardly while the other scrutinize every nook and cranny. There are so many aspects to this simplistic premise that as an audience you are fully invested in their lives. You find yourself fretting about what would happen if they didn’t find a good home in time. Where would they get the deposit from ? As if it had suddenly come down to you.
Santhosh Sreeram as Ilango, and Suseela as Amudha are absolutely authentic as young parents whose life has suddenly been uprooted. While Santhosh brings a solemn, introverted personality, Suseela has an innocence about her as she looks through the windows of houses with sad eyes – close but just out of reach. Little Dharun is a perceptive kid who holds his parents together. One of my favourite scenes in the film is him pretending to take his parents in an elevator as they play along. Chezhiyan’s cinematography and A. Sreekar Prasad’s editing comes together with this conscious recreation of a very real story and is an absolute treat to watch. To Let not only reflects the untold struggles of the lower middle class but also shines a light on the society that discriminates with tenants based on their caste, social stature and food preferences. If R. K. Narayan had written a story for the modern times, this would be it.
You can catch the film on Amazon Prime India.