The reputation of the National Award winning film To Let preceded its release in Tamil Nadu. So, to say that the expectations surrounding the film were enormous, wouldn't be inaccurate. And while director's Chezhiyan movie is gripping in its portrayal of a couple's struggle to find a rented home in the city of Chennai, it falls short of being truly moving.
To Let showcases the 30-day journey of a lower middle class couple who is looking to move from one rented accommodation to another in the city, after being unceremoniously asked to leave by their landlord. Through the lives of Elangovan (Santhosh Sreeram), an aspiring filmmaker, his homemaker wife Amudha (Sheela Rajkumar) and their kindergartner son Siddharth (Dharun), the film explores the strife of families who do not have a steady income or 'respectable' job, in the post IT boom era in Tamil Nadu.
The film's screenplay is skillfully woven from the very beginning, with each scene organically leading to the next. Minutes into the movie, when Siddharth tells his father that he is a lion and that his father is a mouse he is going to eat, Elango merely smiles. But upstairs, this metaphor springs to reality as an almost monstrous landlady tells Amudha that the family must leave the house within a month. With the conflict introduced without any delay, our protagonists go about attempting to reach a resolution within the next two hours of the film's runtime.
But a shoe-string budget, Elango's passion for filmmaking, corrupt brokers, casteist or communal landlords and even the family's food preferences prove to be hurdles in their efforts to find a home. In one home, an arrogant landlord who is already miffed by Elango dabbling in cinema, asks him without hesitation - 'Neenga yaaru?' alluding to his caste and then cutting to an image of VO Chidambaram Pillai. And while the protagonist looks baffled, the broker quickly comes to his rescue.
But while these scenes portray what every other tenant must face when attempting to find a house, anywhere in the country, it does not go quite beyond the obvious. And in an effort to constantly focus on the emotional struggles of the family and portray them in good light, the landlady of their current house is portrayed almost like a caricature. For a film that aims to keep realism alive, this portrayal seemed over the top and jarring.
Beautiful cinematography lends strength to this film and despite the subjects - the houses, streets and people - lacking any glamour, the shots keep you transfixed. Windows which are a lei motif in the film, remind us that the filmmaker is allowing us to watch the reality of the members of this house, in all its glory and grit. In one scene, when Siddharth plays 'stone, paper, scissors' with a girl in the neighborhood, the placement of the windows, where she looks down upon him, explains their socio-economic status. When looking at unsuitable houses, the camera shows us the protagonists' point of view, allowing us to form an opinion with them. The use of natural light adds to the drama in the film, further bringing alive the narrative of a family that is losing control of their lives.
The movie, however, is not all about the trio's dismay. The director takes pauses often, to show us tiny moments of joy even as they scramble about to find a house.
There is no additional music or background score in this movie and when I say that I barely noticed this, I mean it as a large compliment to the film. Natural sounds help keep the focus on the dialogues and the performances of the characters. The actors have all done a tremendous job with the characters that they have lived through. And while there is no real learning from the film, you leave the theatre having experienced the journey of looking for the house yourself.