Choked is Anurag Kashyap's next film, a demonetization-drama digitally premiering on Netflix on June 5. Lingering behind Saiyami Kher on the film's poster, is Roshan Mathew, playing a migrant musician from the South, trying to stitch together a broken love and a meandering career in Mumbai. While the digital space is not new to him, this will be his foray into Hindi Cinema. The first time I saw him on-screen was in Moothon (more on this later), a stunningly erotic performance. Despite not many people having watched the film in its theatrical run, his acting made a dent, sticking out of his brief but promising filmography.
Roshan Mathew, now in his late twenties, made his debut with Tanlines (2015), a campy, 13-part mini-series on SonyLIV's YouTube channel. Co-written and directed by Prosit Roy (who directed the ravely reviewed Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime), this show is somewhere between Dil Chahta Hai and The Gay And Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo. Mathew plays Dan, one among many friends in Goa, a serial-fartist, a loveable, and lean laughing stock. When his best-friend walks in on his girlfriend cheating on him, he is heartbroken. Dan's solution is a "break-up box" of lesbian porn, Russian vodka, zombie movies, and Baba Kaushik Ananda's speech on Kaam-control. This is the pitch of the character- outrageous, horny, with childlike charm. But there's a moment a few episodes in that really stood out. Mathew ends up kissing this best-friend to comically cover up their faces from someone they're trying to avoid. Right after that, he walks down the stairs, hand on lips, quiet, and confused. Did he enjoy that? Is he… gay? This of course isn't brought up again, but those tensions linger. It's a fine moment of acting.
Four years later, after a string of small roles in big films (like the adoring banjo player in Anjali Menon's Koode), and big roles in smaller films (like Thottappan that didn't do well commercially, finding a niche audience in Netflix), Mathew plays Amir, a mute man in Moothon (2019), a Malayalam crime-drama. This film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; and was screened as the opening film of 2019 MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
In one of the most poignant moments of the film, he shares an intimate moment with Nivin Pauly, dunked in the indigo Lakshadweep waters under the retreating sun. This time, his character is more assured, eyeing Pauly with diligent lust as he gets him home, locking the door behind them. His eyes have this quiet intensity that can be both brooding and flirtatious. His roots in theater acting can be seen; this sense of performance built into his restraint.
Moothon was an inflection point for Mathew. His character, Amir, was written and cast only after 80% of the film had been shot. Though he has about twenty minutes of screen-time (one of the most intense moments of the film ensue here), like writer-director Geetu Mohandas says, "He is the surprise package of the film; one of the finest actors I have worked with in my career as a filmmaker."
For Mohandas, Mathew was an instant, and instinctive choice, "The first time I met him, and I had never seen him before, he just walked in and I knew he was my Amir, he had that charm, that energy. The moment he sat down, I told him, let's go see the edit, I want you to do this role."
On set, however, Mathew initially felt like a fish out of water, "He was in his own world, so much prep was going on, and he was watching all of it, and psyching himself out because of the big names associated with the film."
But as soon as Mohandas screamed "Action", he would know exactly what to do. He would become the character, so much so that Mohandas stopped briefing him before scenes. There is a pivotal scene, where he is supposed to be battered by another character, and though he was not quite prepared for the blows, the scene kept rolling. He refused to speak to Mohandas as the scene was cut, for not warning him, but eventually warmed up, applying make-up on the bruises for the remaining scenes. "You can see the pain in that shot, he is really angry, screaming "fuck you". That is real anger."
It was at the edit table of Moothon that Anurag Kashyap, who co-produced and co-wrote the film, first saw Mathew. Mohandas was recounting that moment of Kashyap discovering Mathew, "When Anurag was watching the Moothon cut, he was quiet… the moment Roshan came on, and after a couple of scenes, he asked so loudly "Who is this guy?" I just knew that Anurag would cast him for one of his projects. Right after the film got over, he said "What an actor! I want him for Choked!" I made Anurag call Roshan out of the blue, and Roshan was freaking out sitting in Kerala." Mathew would get cast as the musician in Choked,
Another year later, when a virus brought the entire world to its knees, all shoots stalled, Mathew was back to theater, virtually. He performed a reading of a play written by Mahesh Dattani, with Jim Sarbh, on Zoom. Sarbh and Mathew played lovers across class-lines meeting in a post-COVID19 world, when the rich lived in bubbles, and the poor in clusters. At one point, both the characters were written to be stripped down naked, save for the underwear, staring at each other's outlines against the late monsoon sun, yearning. It's a brief but powerful moment of desire, so quietly performed. Almost as if the distance between the two zoom screens didn't exist. As if distance never really mattered.