Director Chezhiyan On His National-Award-Winning Tamil Film ‘To Let’

“We couldn’t have sent this film to so many festivals if we hadn’t produced it,” says the cinematographer-turned-director
Director Chezhiyan On His National-Award-Winning Tamil Film ‘To Let’

To Let, a Tamil film that's written and directed by cinematographer Chezhiyan, is being screened at the International Film Festival of India 2018 in three categories – International Competition, Centenary Award for the Best Debut Feature Film of a Director, and Indian Panorama. The movie has won several awards all over the world, and it bagged the Best Feature Film in Tamil at the 65th National Film Awards.

Chezhiyan's relationship with filmmaking began with Kalloori, in 2007, for which he worked as a cinematographer. Now, his directorial debut, To Let, is making heads turn from Italy to Indonesia. Here, in a freewheeling conversation, he tells us about his cinematic choices and more.

Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

Most of the films that you've been associated with as a cinematographer – Paradesi, Tharai Thappattai, and Joker – are socio-political in nature. Your directorial debut, To Let, also has politics in it. Are you more attracted to such subjects? 

It's a coincidence actually. I wanted to take up interesting films as a cinematographer, and not repeat what I had done before. And as a director, I didn't want to make a regular commercial film with a formula. That's why I made To Let.

When did you get the idea of making To Let in the first place?

We had to shift houses in 2007. Till then, Chennai was a comfortable city for us. When we started looking for a house to move into, I could see the other face of the city. I thought that experience could be made into a film. I started writing immediately, and it was more like a diary back then. I also started looking for houses with brokers to learn more about these things.

How has the shift from being a cinematographer to a writer-director been?

I don't see it as a shift. I have worked very closely with directors right from my first film. Be it Balaji Shakthivel (director of Kalloori), or Bala (director of Paradesi and Tharai Thappattai), I've been with them from the first stage till the release date. So, it wasn't a big difference for me when I directed To Let.

Your film has won many international awards. Is a story about a family from a lower middle-class background, looking for a house relatable to people from other parts of the world?

I didn't think of it that way. I only wanted to make an honest film, but surprisingly, the relatability factor has worked everywhere it has travelled to. If you go to Paris, you'll find the same problem in some other form. If you go to Kolkata, it's the same thing again.

I had been to Singapore recently. There a filmmaker named Rajagopal, who has made a film titled A Yellow Bird, watched To Let and said he couldn't relate to the story  as he hadn't experienced something similar. But he said he liked the movie very much. The stories from the books we read or the movies we watch need not have happened in our life, but we may still like it.

To Let has a family at its centre – mother, father, and a kid. As you said earlier, the house-hunting problem finds is prevalent in different forms in different countries. Are you trying to put the family as the face of this global issue?  

We can't plan our scripts that way. If we make a commercial film, we can follow a formula and bring in the ingredients to make the film enjoyable for all centres. However, this (a film like To Let) is like writing a novel, or a poem. Some people might like it, and some people won't.

In an interview with Firstpost, you had mentioned, "While submitting a film for festivals, you won't even find a language called 'Tamil' on their websites. If you click India, only 'Hindi' is available. Today, Indian cinema is widely recognised as 'Bollywood' in the international circuit. We are making close to 200 films in Tamil, but hardly any film makes it to the 5000 odd festivals across the world." What's stopping Tamil films from getting international recognition?

In our commercial films, there's a template. The "hero" does stunts and takes the wrongdoers to task. The "heroine" is a beautiful girl who dances well. The "villain" will be a big don, or a politician. The "comedian" will definitely be the hero's friend. Without these four elements, we don't make a commercial film at all. This is what we've been doing for over a century. The cast and crew are changing, but the content has remained the same. How will this formula work at the international stage? Even though we have talented people, we haven't experimented enough.

Your wife is the producer of To Let. Did you face any challenges during the making?

I looked for a producer initially, but I was asked to add songs and rope in a leading actress, and I didn't want to do any of that. Then, when I was discussing the film with my wife, Prema, she said we could do it ourselves.

Also, we couldn't have sent this film to so many festivals if we hadn't produced it. If it were produced by somebody else, they'd have asked me to release the film soon after winning the National Award. As this is our home production, we're letting it have a run at the festivals.

There's no music composer for To Let. How did you make that bold choice of filling the film with ambient noise alone?

I have immense love and respect for music. In our films, music will be used from the opening credits till the end. Tamil cinema has relied on the strength of music for a hundred years. If you remove the songs and the score from movies, you wouldn't know how many of them would be able to stand on their own legs. But it isn't the same case with international films. If you see Cold War (Polish film, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski), there's music in it, and it's so beautiful. The movie is about a singer, and I was mesmerized by it. If you make such a film, then you can have music.

When is the film getting a theatrical release?

It might release by the end of December, or January.

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