Readers Write In #67: The writing of To Let – A well intentioned imitation

Posted on February 26, 2019

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In present day Thamizh film scenario, To Let is an achievement. To mount a film with no known faces, shoot it minimally and to exude what is understood as an ‘Iranian’ film sensibility is no mean achievement. Its successful run in the theatres is heartwarming. A testimony to how the Thamizh audience has always encouraged well intentioned cinema.

However To Let stops with being precisely that. It’s well intentioned. It wants to push boundaries of pace and content, but it stops well short of hitting the spot, the absolute gold standard of the great films that it wants to emulate.

Chezhiyan talks about wanting to make simple cinema. His influences are the world cinema he has watched and appreciated over the years. Consequently, To Let wants to emulate movies with simple premises like the Bicycle Thieves, Children of Heaven, or Veedu, or The Separation.

The main reason why the simplicity works in those films is because the writer/director finds and presents the dramatic moment within that very simple universe. It’s a poignant lesson that stories are all about characters wanting things. And those characters could be utterly normal and human. And the things could be utterly rote and in many cases, taken for granted, by us in real life. And that’s enough for drama. We don’t need superheroes wanting to save the world.

In Children of Heaven, the kids lose a pair of shoes. The father cannot afford a replacement. So the sister finishes school, runs across the village and hands the shoes over to her brother who, because of having to do this transaction, invariably goes late to his school. It’s a simple poignant premise. But the high drama happens when the shoe accidentally falls off the sister’s foot, into the gutter. The brother goes chasing as the stream threads its way through the village. It is breathtakingly dramatic, as dramatic as Black panther chasing Klaw through the streets of Bangkok.
It’s the same with the false alarms in the course of the Bicycle Thieves, the death of the grandfather in Veedu, and the Alzheimer’s affected father of the protagonist of The Separation being left chained inside the bathroom by his attendant. Only for a moment, the characters reach the ends of their worlds. It is terrible and we feel it along with them. It doesn’t matter if what the protagonist wants is a pair of shoes or a house on rent, a peaceful separation or the Tesseract.

To Let’s inciting incident – the family having to vacate the house – is the first and the only sufficiently dramatic moment in the film. From there, the couple and their son go from one prejudiced potential landlord to another. It’s a single tone right till the end of the film. The fabricated business card, is the closest we get to a point of desperation. But it is dealt with almost unwillingly that it fails to show us the end of the world, like in the other films.

The writing also dabbles in plain sentiment by painting the landlady evil, by wanting to artificially establish class differences – The unbelievable naivete to go up to an 8th floor 3 bedroom apartment, which is so obviously outside the characters’ consideration, and be driven out with one ridiculous question – ‘can you afford it?’ – No classic Iranian film (or any film made on a similar everyday premise) catered so blatantly to sentiment.

And then the conclusion – If the house in the suburbs was an alternative that they knew of, but didn’t want to consider, why was I (as someone investing my time in this quest of the characters) not told about it earlier? How did it arrive as the denouement unannounced?

Making a film about the Thamizh way of life is by itself seen as a virtue in Thamizh cinema. In a politically charged society, To Let is seen as a vital document about class and caste distinction. But is it the artistic masterpiece that can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with any of the films it wants to emulate?

One of Director Chezhiyan’s favourite oft repeated anecdotes is about him once imitating one of painter Adhimoolam’s paintings to perfection. A stranger walked into his studio in Sivagangai once, looked at his imitation and told him “This is not Adhimoolam’s painting. It is an imitation.” It is an anecdote he shares to enunciate how duplicates could never become originals. Ironically, that is how I felt about To Let.

(by Naadodee.)