Tamil Interviews

‘To-let’ Is About The Way The Word Haunts People In Chennai: Cinematographer Chezhiyan

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Chezhiyan talks to us about To Let, a Tamil drama written and directed by him, and produced by his wife Prema. The film won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil this year, has received 26 international awards, and been nominated for 80. While Chezhiyan hopes to take it to festivals across the world, he says he wants no jazzy release for the film here

One of Chezhiyan’s best known cinematography projects is Kalloori, a 2007 film inspired by the real life Dharmapuri bus burning incident where three college girls from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University were burnt alive. The three men from AIADMK, who were convicted in this case and were serving life sentences, were released earlier this month. 

Chezhiyan’s films are known to be hard-hitting. His popular period drama Paradesi, was about a group of villagers lured to work at a tea plantation run by British officials.

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It won him the Best Cinematography Award at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival.

The story of To Let too, is grounded on real experiences. It’s about the problems encountered by Chennai’s working class when they want to move homes. The idea came from Chezhiyan’s own experiences and his friends’ experiences as tenants in the city. He wanted to film the emotional bond one attaches to their house. And that was the inspiration, in a city like Chennai, where one might not live in a house for longer than two years. “There are many problems with shifting, and it becomes difficult because memories get attached to a house. So I thought why not make a film about this,” he says.

When Chezhiyan first moved to Chennai from his home town in Sivagangai district, he was new to the word ‘to-let’. In his home town there were no such boards. He says, “For the first time, I saw an empty house create so much demand. I thought this was because of the growth of multinational companies in the city. People don’t own a house here, and can’t stay in a rented house for long, so they go again in search of the ‘to-let’ board. The word has come to haunt people.”

Title poster of the film.

Chezhiyan is a civil engineering graduate from Sivagangai, who came to Chennai with a dream of becoming a director. He learnt filmmaking from others directors in the industry, “I first met C Rudhraiya, the director of Aval Appadithan. He said my writing mostly consisted of dialogues, and explained that when writing for cinema, something must be visualised. He asked me to learn cinematography. So I joined as an assistant to PC Sreeram sir. It was only after this, after working with directors like Bala and others, I realised what cinema was.”

Chezhiyan has assisted director-politician Seeman in the film Thambi in 2006. His other productions are S Shankar’s Rettaisuzhi, Gowthaman’s Magizhchi, and Seenu Ramasamy’s Thenmerku Paruvakaatru, which won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil. More recently, in 2016, he worked on the thriller Sawaari, and on the critically-acclaimed films Tharai Thappattai and Joker.

His upcoming venture, Chezhiyan says, involves both direction and cinematography, and its production will start next year: “I’m the cinematographer, but I’m also working on the film’s script. The film doesn’t need promotion, so I didn’t announce earlier. If the film has well-known actors, and if the situation demands an announcement, it will be made.”

Over years, Chezhiyan says he has learnt that a director is not different from a cinematographer. A cinematographer simply visualises the director’s idea, even as the director has his own vision.

For To Let, his vision was clear. He didn’t want to cast trained actors. So Santhosh Sriram, one of his assistants, plays the male lead, and Sheela Rajkumar, a play artiste, is the female lead. He explains this choice and says, “I didn’t want people to start comparing characters to their previous roles.

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So even the child in the film plays a debut role.”

A still from To Let.

Chezhiyan does not wish for any jazz around his film’s theatre releases, because at least one film with a ‘mass hero’ releases every month, and four others every week. “I’m quite hesitant,” he declares, “But we will hopefully release To Let after Pongal. We don’t want competition or buzz for the film. People should experience a good movie. It shouldn’t feel like meeting a friend in hurry, but like meeting them on a nice Sunday evening, at the beach.”

One of the first people to watch To Let was PC Sreeram, the man who taught Chezhiyan to handle a commercial movie. He says, “I first showed it to him because he taught me to make a modern film among other things. The film has a 100-minute run time, but sir told me it didn’t feel like more than an hour because of how well connected it was. He also said he hadn’t watched such a light-hearted film lately.”

When To Let received praise from Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi, Larry Fong and other cinematographers, Chezhiyan found the moments priceless. “They said the film’s concept hit them hard, and didn’t expect an Indian film to offer so much. Larry even said that the film was a contemporary one in world cinema.”

Chezhiyan hopes to take To Let to other international film festivals and screenings around the world. “Not all Tamil films go to international film festivals,” he says, “But I have confidence that an independent Tamil film can make people across the world talk about it.

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The Chezhiyan interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.

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