In 2007, Tamil cinematographer Chezhiyan found that there was a story waiting to be told on Chennai’s skyrocketing rents and the challenges of house-hunting. The film Chezhiyan wanted to make was to be small-budget and realistic, without any big-name actors or songs.

Chezhiyan had to wait more than 10 years to make that happen. After lensing several Tamil films, including Kallori (2007), Thenmerku Paruvakaatru (2010), Paradesi (2013) and Joker (2016), Chezhiyan made his directorial debut in 2017 by self-financing Tolet, which won the National Film Award for best Tamil feature in 2018.

Edited by Sreekar Prasad, the film is set in 2007, when an information technology sector boom created a new class of young and well-paid employees, driving up real estate prices in Chennai. Tolet follows a middle-class couple and their school-going son as they race against time to find a rental house after their landlord asks them to vacate their apartment. Caste discrimination and financial hardships are among the obstacles they face.

Starring newcomers Santhosh Sreeram and Suseela, the film will be released on February 21. Tolet’s premise remains relevant as the rental housing market is still difficult to navigate, Chezhiyan told “Be it a rented house or an owned house, the feeling of leaving it behind is heartbreaking in equal measure,” he said. Edited and translated excerpts from an interview.

Like your lead character Ilango, a screenwriter played by Santhosh, you hail from Sivagangai. How much of ‘Tolet’ draws from real life?
I used to write a column [Ulaga Cinema] in Vikatan [a Tamil magazine] about world cinema, between 2004 and 2006. While I was writing, the IT boom happened in Chennai. Tenants were being interviewed before being selected. I witnessed this too when I was asked to move out. I realised that there was a story here. I jotted down these experiences in a diary. I pretended to rent a house to know what exactly happens. I also looked at my friends’ experiences. I fictionalised parts of all our experiences.

Tolet (2019).

‘Tolet’ also explores caste discrimination and religion as well as unfair practices in the film industry.
The film is not just about a couple hunting for a house. It is about the many issues that they face and how their economic life and their kid’s education and freedom is affected. The film is nothing but the reflections of the words “to let” in this family’s life. The relationship between the husband and wife is affected and the kid also does not have the space to explore his artistic talent.

How challenging was it to pitch a songless film without big names to a financier?
A lot of producers thought Tolet was in the same vein as an Iranian film. They also suggested that we include a song and change the climax. Finally, a producer came on board. But due to demonetisation, he backed out.

My wife suggested that we produce the film ourselves. We started filming in the last week of December in 2017 and finished by the first week of February in 2018.

Tolet. Courtesy zha Cinemas.

You are also a cinematographer. How did you choose to shoot your debut feature?
You will get to know what kind of a film it is by looking at any one shot. Light is what creates the film’s mood. We did not use any extra light. We tried to capture life with natural light. Shot divisions and camera movements too help in creating realism. The only colours in the film are from the kid’s artwork. We wanted the film to have a monochrome effect. We also had many static shots. We hardly moved the camera and had long shots.

There are not too many neo-realist movies in the Tamil film industry. We do have realism in some films, but there is always a larger-than-life element somewhere. Producers think that this is what works with the audience. Since I produced this film, I wanted to at least make an attempt at neo-realism. When [Iranian filmmaker] Asghar Farhadi watched the film, he told me it was very close to life.

What do non-professional actors bring to a film?
When non-actors come into a film like this, its credibility can only increase. I wanted the film to travel in the international film festival circuit. I was looking for Tamil faces and identities. Santhosh has worked with me as an assistant cameraman. The actress was a non-actor, whom I found on Facebook. I did a few workshops with them.

Dharun [who plays Siddharth, the couple’s son] did not know that he was acting in front of the camera. I would tell Santhosh [Sreeram] and Suseela to go on frequent outings on the bike along with the kid. That was their rehearsal. Dharun then got comfortable with them.

We shaped the movie according to his [Dharun’s] mood. He would often sleep and we would shoot scenes where his character too would be sleeping.

Tolet. Courtesy zha Cinemas.