To Let Movie Review: To Let is a quietly powerful film that superbly captures the economic imbalances that the information technology boom has created in our society, and the way it has impacted the lives of the middle-class when it comes to one of the basic necessities of life – shelter. The plot kicks in when a family of three – Ilango (Santhosh Sreeram), an aspiring filmmaker, Amudha (Sheela Rajkumar), his wife, and Siddharth (Dharun), their son – is asked to vacate their house. The entire film involves their search for a house to rent, and is set some time after 2007, when the IT boom resulted in the creation of an upwardly mobile class that did not worry about spending money, and how this, in turn, lead to inflation of real estate prices and made it difficult for the truly middle-class to afford a decent house – even for rent.
The film plays out like a fine companion piece to another significant film about a middle-class family’s travails to afford a house – Balu Mahendra’s Veedu. In fact, it feels like an exploration of the same issue in a contemporary setting. And it holds a mirror to the changes in the society since then. Veedu was a film set in the pre-globalisation era, and in hindsight, the situation of its characters seems better now, for then, the middle-class could at least have a chance at owning their own house. Now, the economic disparity is so vast that a family like that of Ilango’s can only dream of owning one. Like that film, this one, too, wants to be as realistic as possible, and even eschews background score and opts for sound design (by Tapas Nayak) to enhance the mood of the scenes.
Chezhiyan tries to do away with melodrama as much as possible, unlike a film like the recent Kadikara Manithargal, which also dealt with the same issue (this film was made before that one, and has been on the festival circuit, winning among many other awards, the National Award at the Best Tamil Film). In fact, one crucial development, involving a house owner backing out at the last moment, happens off screen. A lesser filmmaker would have been tempted to milk such a scenario to make things dramatic, but Chezhiyan instead gives us the aftermath of such a development. It is subtle and impactful.
But there are characters and scenes that do feel like they belong in that film. Like Ilango’s landlady (Athira Pandilakshmi). Chezhiyan would have made his point if the character had been merely indifferent towards the plight of her tenants, but she is turned into an arrogant lady who only has contempt for Ilango and his family. We even get a shot where she scratches her back with the money that is given to her as rent! The way Ilango and Amudha react every time someone comes to check out the house is also somewhat melodramatic. Perhaps these scenes are intended to show how such visits are an invasion of privacy, but the embarrassment that the couple shows (save for an instance when someone opens an almirah and Amudha’s inner wear and sanitary napkins tumble out) doesn’t feel realistic.
These minor quibbles aside, To Let manages to hold you in its grip and provides a moving experience. It effectively captures the emotional turmoil involved in vacating and moving to a different house for a segment of the society, and how factors like religion, caste, profession and even food play a role in this seemingly common life experience. The characters have their own follies. In a couple of instances, we get information that the family could do better, but the characters choose to do what they want to instead of taking the easy way out, like not opting to a job abroad or not taking an affordable house because the present tenants are an elderly couple. These acts might makes us think the characters aren’t practical, but the truth is it makes them all the more human. The dialogues are on point, and minimal. Like the line where a character says how we are okay with giving an entire state to someone from the film industry. Chezhiyan doesn’t complete what the character implies – that people are not ready to give their homes to a ‘cinemakaaran’ – to underline the irony. He just wants the audience to fill in the blanks. This approach of leaving things unsaid is seen in the narration, too. We never get Ilango and Amudha’s backstory or the resolution to their problem, and yet we get an idea of their lives. All we get are the scenes that are shown between shots of opening and closing of a door. It’s a beautiful visual touch, and a terrific way to bookend the film.
In the initial portions of the film, we repeatedly get throwaway shots of a sparrow that has built its nest inside the family’s home. Its fate gets decided by an act of momentary forgetfulness while a character enjoys a simple comfort. In a way, families like Ilango’s are like that bird, their fate decided by a section of the society that has forgotten about the existence of others while enjoying a few perks.