In this interview, the director shares his thoughts on why there’s a dearth of world-class cinema in the Tamil industry, the need for such films and the change the industry is going through.

We keep feeding people mediocrity To Let director Chezhiyan to TNMFacebook
Flix Interview Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 17:50

The story of a family, a mother, father and their little boy, hunting for a house to live in in modern day Chennai was told in such a manner that it went on to heap international awards. The film in question is director Chezhiyan’s To Let, one of the most eagerly awaited releases of this year, having already won the 65th National Film Award for Best Feature in Tamil. While the film’s director is well-known for his cinematography in films like Kalloori, Paradesi, Tharai Thappattai and Joker, his repute in Tamil cinema however predates to his writing days when his column, Ulaga Cinema, in a popular Tamil magazine was eagerly awaited by scores of film enthusiasts.

Between 2005 and 2007, Chezhiyan authored close to 100 such articles on world cinema and the director himself admits that it was during this period that he metamorphosed into the person that he is today. But his interest in world cinema itself, he attributes to a particular life changing incident.

“Cinema has always been my favourite. As a young boy, I’ve been to a lot of theatres and touring talkies with my father. One day, when I happened to watch Bicycle Thieves, I was completely taken aback. Why aren’t we doing such films? Why don’t we have simple, minimal characters? It made me question further and also drew me closer to world cinema,” he begins. 

Thus started his interest and the director has always maintained that Tamil cinema too, with its wealth of stories, histories and culture, is capable of making such films. Referring to masters like Chaplin, Bresson and Hitchcock, Chezhiyan says that he believes there are only two kinds of cinema - interesting cinema or not-interesting cinema.

Today, after having made a film like To Let, the director still feels he’s not there yet, that he’s just started treading on the path to make more such world-class cinema. In this interview with TNM, Chezhiyan shares his thoughts on why there’s a dearth of world-class cinema in the Tamil industry, the need for such films and the changes that the industry is going through. Excerpts from the interview below.

You’ve said To Let is based on your personal experiences. While house hunting can be a bitter experience for many, based on caste, class and gender, what was your intention behind choosing to go with a family’s story?

There’s a family with a child. Theirs is an inter-religious marriage and the couple is quite young. The man is working with aspirations, he wants to come up in life. I thought it would tell a nice story.

Your film created quite a buzz in festival circles and its theatrical release comes after almost two years. Tell us about this choice of yours, to take the film to festivals first.

Usually, in Tamil cinema, if you were to release a film, it has to be of a particular format - a song, fight, big hero, etc. Now, if we happen to make a film without all this, how to make sure it reaches the right audience? Had I released it before sending it to festivals, people might not have known or heard about my film. To take my film to the international market was my intention. Tamil cinema has no space in the international market right now. Even though we have so many films being made, with 3 films being released every week, not even 18 films make it to the festival annually. We have quality, culture and story but why do we not reach the international market?

My choice is like a man choosing to export products made by his family business for want of better opportunities at home.

You’ve been very critical of the commercial cinema format and you’ve also said people appreciate “mediocrity”. Do you think it's because people appreciate such fare that such films are being made? Or is it the other way round?

We keep feeding people mediocrity. Children with less opportunities grow differently, children who are better off grow differently, children who are better cared for turn out differently. All children are born the same but what they become depends on what they’re given. I believe it is the same with films and audience.

We only give people mediocre films. There are only commercially defined films. When we keep feeding them this, they will not know any better. In countries like France, a 4th standard kid will know world classics, a 10th standard student will be able to name world cinema when asked for the best. Here, our children will name only commercial films if you ask them their favourite. I think when we continuously give people better cinema they’ll know better.

The idea of a novel being translated to the screen is not common in Tamil cinema. You’ve also said you first wanted to make To Let into a novel. Do you think our quality of cinema would be better if we sought more inspiration from literature?

We need training for translating novels into cinema. We have a formula for our films. When novels and short stories are adapted into this mould, they will lose their essence. Novels have no template but cinema here has. If you can work outside this template, it can surely be done.

In recent years, a number of small budget Malayalam films have been doing well even outside Kerala. Why do you think the Tamil industry is still obsessed with big budget flicks?

To Let has been made for that purpose, as an initiative. People did tell me it might not work out. When I told people I’d be making such a film, I only received a lot of negative feedback. No one said in Malayalam it is being done, why don’t you do? Now, after my film has released, we know there will be appreciation, when such films are done. We might have at least 10 such films in a year.

With To Let, you’ve proved that a big cast or a big budget is not required for a film to win critical acclaim. What are your thoughts on some of the lavish projects that are being made in Tamil?

It is a big industry. A mother might weave a sweater for her son. At the same time, sweaters are also being made in bulk in big mills. You can't question why the other exists. There’s a requirement for both.

Films like Merkku Thodarchi Malai, Pariyerum Perumal, Peranbu are changing Tamil cinema’s narratives. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think a movement is in the offing? That audiences are changing?

Every 20 years, this keeps changing. A hero or a director will come into the industry and change things. It is a lot like seasons. I take inspirations from international films, there might be others who take inspirations from life. I think it is an encouraging trend.

Now that you’ve entered into direction, will you continue with cinematography?

Sure. I’m doing cinematography for a new director’s film. I’ve also got a couple of interesting scripts which I will begin after this.

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