Cast: Santosh Nambirajan, Sheela, Dharun
There have been films on housing shortage and how Indians have borne the brunt of tricksters. One of the earliest movies on this came in 1977, Gharonda, which had two fascinating actors, Amol Palekar and Zarina Wahab, playing a distressed couple cheated out of a promised flat. The pain and pathos were drawn with rare sensitivity, and showed how utter despair pushed them into a hopeless pit.
Balu Mahendra's 1988 classic, Veedu, in Tamil was a masterpiece that also spoke about the helplessness of Sudha (conveyed with a touch of excellence by Archana) trying to find a house for herself and her family.The climax was disturbing, and underlined how the middle-class obsession for owning a house often led to disastrous consequences.
Chezhiyan's latest, To Let (which won the National Award for the Best Tamil Picture last year), plots a subject similar to Gharonda and Veedu, the desire to have a house. But Chezhiyan's protagonists have a more modest ambition, though the wife, Amudha (essayed with wonderful natural ease by Sheela), does in a moment of overly ambitious weakness feels that owning a house (not renting one) with a spacious kitchen and little balcony will be a dream come true for her. Her husband, Ilango (Santosh Nambirajan, also a natural), is a struggling writer, whose stories for cinema may sparkle, but does not get any credit. A producer is willing to pay him, but not credit his name. Their little son, Siddharth (Dharun), cannot understand when his parents can own a television set and a two-wheeler have to live in a rented place.
The flat owner (Athira Pandilakshmi) is not just snooty, looking down upon Amudha and Ilango, but also cruel when she asks them to vacate at a punishingly short notice. The couple's travails begin then, and begin to multiply when they find it just about impossible to find a living accommodation. The reasons, nay excuses, vary from Ilango's profession (cinema is low down in the esteem of landlords) to his caste to his food habits.
All these are true even today in Chennai, where the movie is set. Single men and women are often no-no with house owners, so are members of some religious communities. And film writers fighting for a toehold in the tinsel world are often kept miles away.
What is most striking about To Let is its ability to stay focussed on what it sets out to explore. Czezhiyan, who also wrote the story and cranked the camera, refuses to play the poplar card that most Tamil movies are tempted to do. There are no songs and and dances in To Let, and the music one hears comes from the old-fashioned television set that the family possesses. In the process, To Let turns out to be a compelling piece of cinema narrating not just Ilango's and Amudha's woes, but also those of the hundreds of thousands of others striving to find a decent flat.
The work is sincere and honest, and crisp at 99 minutes, though it could have avoided a few patches of exaggeration. To Let may be seen by some as a trifle too dark and depressing. A more imaginative curve could have done the trick.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)