After her debut in 2016 in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's experimental Mirzya, the phone stopped ringing for Saiyami Kher. The actress went on to do Mauli in 2018, a Marathi film opposite Riteish Deshmukh, and took up roles on streaming shows like Neeraj Pandey's Special Ops and the upcoming second season of Amazon Prime Video's Breathe, starring Abhishek Bachchan.
Four years after Mirzya, Kher is once again a lead actor, this time in Anurag Kashyap's Netflix Original Choked. The actress delivers a confident performance as Sarita, a frustrated bank teller married to a thankless, unemployed man (played by Roshan Mathew). She's weighed down by the daily struggles of making ends meet until one day, money starts erupting from a pipe in her kitchen. It all works out well till demonetisation strikes and leaves her new-found fortune potentially worthless.
Over a Zoom call, the actress speaks about life after Mirzya, working with Anurag Kashyap and the politics of Choked.
What was your first reaction when you read the script of Choked?
I met Anurag sir at MAMI which is when he told me about the film. He sent me the script and I had no idea he was going to direct it. I usually take a while to read scripts but this one I sped through. It was really intriguing because we are so used to seeing Punjabi or North Indian culture onscreen and if it is Mumbai, it's usually the gangster world. But here it was a simple middle-class family going through their struggles. I grew up in Nasik in a middle-class Maharashtrian household so for me this was really relatable and I felt the writing was extremely real. As soon as I read the script, I called him and said 'I love the script. I want to do it'. That's when he told me he's directing it which really sealed the deal for me.
You've talked about how you had a tough time finding opportunities after Mirzya, but your co-star Harshvardhan Kapoor didn't.
When I did Mirzya, I didn't know the commercial side of films and how it functions. It only hit me like a year later where I realised this is a business and those factors matter. This whole debate about nepotism is overdone but when somebody is from the industry, the second opportunity is a little easier. The audiences are smarter now, so even if you are whoever you are, they need to accept you.
What was the toughest part about playing Sarita?
When I read the script I was confident I wanted to be a part of this but I was worried about whether I could pull it off. I spoke to the writer Nihit Bhave and the costume designer and asked if we could do a look test. I got a friend to shoot some stills where I was in the complete look of what we thought Sarita would be like and that's when I felt I could do this.
That, for me, was the toughest part because the roles I'd done till then were very different. Anurag sir told me 'the image you have in public or on social media is not the person you are. I see in you a lot of middle-class values that Sarita has. So just stay rooted to where you are from'. I think that gave me the confidence I needed.
In the film, you have a very turbulent relationship with your husband Sushant, played by Roshan Mathew. You're almost like a parent to him. What went into creating that dynamic?
I feel the credit goes to the writing because a lot of those arguments and moments were clearly detailed in the script. Having said that, it's also Sarita's character. She is like 90% of the middle-class women in India. They're all working, trying to make ends meet. Sushant doesn't contribute to the home at all and Sarita works hard and comes back home to this male chauvinist husband. To me, it was a reflection of our society.
There's that great scene in the film where you and Sushant are having a heated fight and pushing your son to take sides while he's trying to sleep. What went into creating that?
That scene is one of my favourites because Roshan and I both rehearse a lot. I'm from Rakesh Omprakash Mehra's school of acting where we rehearse a lot and in Anurag Kashyap's style of working there are none. But because we hounded him so much, that was one scene where we did a rehearsal in Anurag sir's house. We had his assistant, who is our age, playing our son who's stuck between us.
When we finally shot that scene, the monitor, assistants and Anurag sir were all in another room and he just never calls cut. So even when the lines were over, which were probably just 30-40 seconds into the scene, we just kept going and that was exciting because AK gives you the opportunity to improvise so much and just live the characters.
What was the toughest scene for you? I imagine that scene towards the end when Sarita breaks down was hard.
I didn't find that tough because I really enjoy crying on screen, I'm not sure why. But we had no time to prep that scene. I asked Anurag sir for at least a day but he refused. So I went away and got into my zone and when I came back, he had the whole set really quiet with only a few people around. He's very sensitive which is a delight for an actor. We ended up doing it in one take.
There were other tiny scenes which you wouldn't even think twice about that I found them difficult. There's one where I go to Amruta Subhash's house and tell her 'I know this man who will exchange the notes for you'. It is a really tiny scene but for some reason, I was really struggling with it. There's another where I meet Reddy and he tells me to exchange notes for him. That was another one I was unhappy with. If given the chance, those are the two scenes I wish I could do again.
The politics of the film is clear. There's a scene in the bank when Sarita says to an elderly woman begging to withdraw more money 'Bank mein paise milte hain, sympathy nahi milti. Unke haath jodiye jinko vote diya tha'. As an actor does being a part of films that take certain political stances worry you?
When I read the script, I didn't expect demonetisation to come in. It was a real surprise and obviously there have been drafts which have been changed. The particular scene that you are talking about, I don't feel like Anurag's politics seeped into the film. It's purely Sarita talking out of complete frustration. I have talked to so many people at banks and they all said that this decision was so badly implemented and they were so frustrated because the rules kept changing and people kept begging them for help. It came to a point where they felt annoyed with the whole system.
Having said that, as actors we do what our characters need us to. We might not completely agree with the political views. Tomorrow if I play a serial killer, that doesn't mean that I propagate murder. So there is no fear because I'm just an actor putting out what's in the script.