Cast: Sheela Rajkumar, Santosh Sreeram, Dharun Bala
R Chezhian's To Let opens with a title card about the IT boom, around 2007, and how it made house rentals difficult for the non-IT middle class. The film's protagonist, Ilango (Santosh Sreeram), is as non-IT as you can get. In the first scene, the camera roams around the modest home Ilango inhabits with his wife and kindergarten-going son: Amudha (Sheela Rajkumar) and Siddhu (Dharun). We see crayon scribbles on the walls, plastic water-storing pots, a clogged Indian-style toilet, cobwebs on the grills of windows — and hanging casually on a nail, a bag from one of the editions of the International Film Festival of India at Goa. Ilango isn't just any filmmaker. He is that kind of filmmaker, someone who makes it a point to watch a Russian film even after a long, tiring day outside.
At least, I think it's a Russian film. Chezhian doesn't show us images from the film, only the sounds as it plays on a TV set. To Let is about the family's search for a house when their landlady asks them to move out. But the film is just as much the chronicle of the life of a very ordinary non-IT guy, and the things he has to do to be able to afford the things an IT guy would take for granted: say, sending his son to a relatively decent school, even if his vest is riddled with holes, even if he has to present a concept pitch for an ad film for a brand of pickle, even if he gets around on the ricketiest of mopeds. This moped becomes a superb metaphor in the scene where Ilango (with his wife and son) pulls up beside an air-conditioned car at a traffic light. Siddhu looks at the little girl inside the car, who holds a huge stuffed toy. She looks very much like the daughter of an IT guy. The car zooms off. Ilango pedals furiously, but his moped won't start. He's been left behind in every possible sense.
There's another excellent scene where Siddhu invites his parents to play a game he's devised. It involves…house-hunting. The little boy has been so exposed to his parents' plight that he makes it a part of his imaginary life. This scene isn't played for tears. Very little is. It is what it is. Chezhian does away with one of the major tear-extractors in our films. To Let has no background score. I was reminded of Balu Mahendra's similarly themed Veedu, which used snatches of Ilaiyaraaja's groundbreaking non-film album, How To Name It?. But the grand score felt overblown on such a minimalistic film. In To Let, we just get snatches of Ilaiyaraaja, MSV-TKR songs on the radio, which is enough. This is, after all, the soundtrack of everyday life for people like Ilango.
But there are some lessons this film could have taken from Veedu. For one, the relentless grind of existence does not have to be the only note played on screen. Veedu had the marvellous thatha character, played by Chokkalinga Bhagavathar. It gave the heroine a fiery boyfriend. To Let aims for the unadorned simplicity of Iranian cinema, but in the process, it zooms in too tightly on the family, and everyone else is reduced to a caricature. Almost all potential house owners are shown as unjust ("Are you vegetarian?", "Which caste do you belong to?") — and even with the present landlady, Chezhian perhaps hides too much information. We get the sense that there is some conflict, but is that because she is flat-out inconsiderate or has she perhaps had it with this family? (Maybe they weren't always prompt with the rent. Maybe the scribbles on the wall that we find so endearing kept reminding her of the cost of repainting.)
To Let stacks its sympathies on one side, which is as it should be. (It compares Ilango to a sparrow that has left its tree and looks to roost inside concrete buildings, which is a little too "poetic" a touch for a film that strives to be simple prose.) But when the family undergoes one humiliation after another, I began to think about Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven. That was also a single-minded story about a search (for a pair of missing shoes) — but the one-note premise blooms with a number of "moments". To Let could have used some of this tonal variation. In the performances, too. We get the mannered "Indian art film acting" — the downcast faces, the pauses that linger a beat too long. The cast is undoubtedly earnest, but the film truly comes alive in a brief scene with a broker who escorts Ilango. The actor is fantastic. He captures a number of shades, from sympathy for Ilango to supplication before the prospective landlord. I wanted to see more of him.
But Chezhian does manage to put his premise through on his own terms. Early on, Amudha thanks Ilango for taking them out. Your heart breaks when you learn the outing was to… the beach. Even that is a rarity. Ilango and Amudha are a lived-in couple, convincingly frayed around the edges. She loves him. Yet, she's frustrated with him. And these ups and downs keep colouring their relationship throughout the film. The scene where he hands her some much-needed money, as the grinder grinds away in a corner, is a beauty. Life goes on. There's a sense of bustle around them as they go house-hunting: a funeral procession, a religious procession, a procession of blind beggars, a procession of goats. Again, life goes on. I laughed when Ilango, in a moment of crisis, calls a friend, who says he'll call back later because he is inside a theatre. In this art lover's eyes, I wondered what the bigger blasphemy was: the friend's inconsiderateness, or the fact that he wants to make movies for a populace that won't turn off the phone while watching one of those movies. An IT guy wouldn't face these problems.