I'll begin with an aside: The title of Anurag Kashyap's latest film, Choked, reminded me of Utpalendu Chakraborty's 1982 Bengali drama, Chokh. And it's not just that they sound similar. Both are topical, political films that weave their stories around systemic oppression. Chokh came a few years after the Emergency, but its story was set in those dark times. Choked comes a few years after Demonetisation (the word deserves a capital D, no?), but its story is set in 2016, in those… dark times. Also, the titles of both films refer to body parts of the common man: the older film revolves around the protagonist's eyes, the new one about the protagonist's throat. Or more specifically, the voice: the common man's voice that ends up suppressed, stifled, choked. This is literalised and metaphor-ised when Sarita (Saiyami Kher), who's normally a good singer, freezes in front of an audience during the taping of a reality show. That's right. She chokes.
And that incident changed her life, which was — by her account — a happy one until then. Of course, that TV show is not just a TV show. The writer Nihit Bhave takes (perhaps too easy) potshots at India today, with "#JanaGana" and nods to Narendra Modi and his unquestioning bhakt-s. (Sarita's husband Sushant, played by an amiable Roshan Mathew, is one.) But look at the name of the TV show: "Shining Star". It appears that the dazzling spectacle being telecast to millions of homes is like the carefully stage-managed spectacle of… Shining India. The reality show has become reality, across all corners of the country. (Sarita is Maharashtrian; Sushant is Tamilian.) And that's made some citizens, like the overwhelmed Sarita, choke! Some of them have been rendered voiceless.
This is a satire — even a black comedy, if you will. It's rife with symbols, ripe for readings. A drain is choked because it's stuffed with black money, and therefore the economy is choked. And therefore, the Sushant-Sarita house is choked, as seen through their kitchen sink, perennially choked with tea leaves. Another recurring motif is money, which makes itself felt in everything from Sarita's job detail (banking), to her mother's fixed deposits, to Sushant's parents' strained finances, to the reason Sushant fights with a friend/neighbour (it's about the commision for selling insurance policies), to a passing nod to a milkman who has an iPhone, and to Sushant himself. He's a happy-go-lucky, job-hopping slob, and he's defined by his lack of money. If Sarita snaps at him for his meagre monthly contribution to the household, the friend/neighbour mocks him as the "biwi" in the relationship. (Like many Indians, he equates manhood with making money.)
The very opening scene, set in the crumbling building Sarita/Sushant live in, is about money: it's a reminder of how the most middle-class of homes can house unimaginable wealth. The scene is also a reminder of Anurag Kashyap's flamboyance. In the flat above Sarita/Sushant's, a man whose face remains hidden (we don't need to know who he is, because he, too, is less a person than a symbol) wraps his ill-gotten gains — crisp currency notes — in plastic and stuffs them down the bathroom drain. Karsh Kale's music is as flamboyant as the filmmaking. It has the zip of familiar Classical pieces like Sabre Dance or the William Tell Overture, and elsewhere in the film, we get snare drums and other kinds of percussion, which made me think some kind of military operation was underway.
And then, the camera does to the drain what Hitchcock's camera did to Janet Leigh's dead eyes in Psycho. We zoom in to the circular shape of the drain, and a match-cut later, we zoom out of a "shining" disco ball. (The latter, of course, is a link to the TV show.) Another superb stretch of filmmaking comes when Sarita talks to her neighbour about what happened during that TV show. We think the flashback will arrive when, a little later, we see Sarita on her bed at night, gazing into the distance. But it arrives a few seconds later, when she goes to the kitchen for a drink of water. She opens the fridge, the neon light from inside takes us to the neon reality-show set, the bottle in her hand becomes the mic…
The set-up is brilliant, and the plot kicks in when the drain in Sarita's kitchen begins to overflow, vomiting up crisp currency notes wrapped in plastic. (Dirty water; dirty money.) The scene is almost surreal, and one of my favourite bits in Choked is when Sarita goes to the bedroom to wake Sushant up. She places a hand on his thigh, but when he doesn't respond, she changes her mind. This is her money, and Sushant cannot be trusted — for an instant, just an instant, she reminded me of the protagonist of Tumbbad. Like the man in the flat above, Sarita becomes a "criminal", stashing her loot in multiple places around the house. It helps that Saiyami Kher plays the character flatly, like a bundle of nerves wound so tightly that there's no in. It's hard to tell what's going on inside her, and this adds to the surrealism of her situation.
I wish the film had stuck closer to her and stayed surreal. For a brief while, when Sarita shops for (relatively) expensive things, she's like the heroine of Belle de Jour. She's using her ill-gotten wealth to better her life. But about 45 minutes into the movie, NaMo unleashes DeMo, and the carefully constructed set-up collapses. The tone begins to fluctuate wildly. At one point, we are in the realm of a moralising melodrama, which says we deserve this because we voted for this. (Sarita, at the bank, actually has a line to this effect.) At another point, we seem to be in a noose-tightening-around-you thriller, with Sarita being shadowed by a menacing man (Upendra Limaye). And then, there's the unconvincing family drama at the film's heart.
I just couldn't decide what Sushant is all about. Unpredictability is a good thing when it comes to character writing, but the problem is that Sushant seems utterly disposable. The subplot about him and his friend/neighbour goes nowhere — and these friends and neighbours are terrible caricatures. Rajshri Deshpande has some fun as a shameless gossip, but poor Amruta Subhash is made to play a cartoon creature who's at first sympathetic to Sarita, and post DeMo, a schemer to the core. (The scene where she's in hysterics upon hearing the life-altering news feels like unintentional comedy.) If this is meant to suggest that the lack of money can make monsters of us, it's as subtle as the proverbial sledgehammer.
The lower-income classes celebrate the drastic economic move, because they do not have those 500- and 1000-rupee notes to begin with. (Sushant lungi-dances on the streets as though he were in a Vijay blockbuster.) But the newly rich Sarita? It's hard to put a finger on what this odd movie wants to do, especially when the bizarre tonal shifts culminate in a plot development that's literally about "looting from the common man". As for the ending, which occurs a year later, I'm still scratching my head. I know there's something more to it than what we see — but the meanings and metaphors that offered themselves up so delectably at the beginning don't seem as worthwhile to dig into anymore. After a point, the writing goes all over the place and gets as clogged as that drain. It chokes on its curious ambitions.