Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Saiyami Kher, Roshan Mathew, Amruta Subhash
Streaming on: Netflix
Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai, a middling middle-class demonetisation drama, begins on a promising "note". At the dead of night, a Zorro-style score plays over the scene of a shady silhouette climbing to the top floor of a modest building. He enters the apartment and stashes away bundles of neatly packaged cash into the dirty drainage pipe of his toilet. The money is black, in more ways than one. The camera then snakes into the pipe, the darkness morphs into a shiny disco ball, which morphs back into sewage water overflowing on the floor of what is presumably a lower apartment. The title "Choked" appears on top in eerie letters, their reflection glistening on the gooey liquid surface. The subtext is clear: It's always the bottom half that's strangled by top-half decisions.
For the opening twenty minutes, the stage is set: The visual tone is largely green, hinting at envy and money and everything in between. Sarita (a passable Saiyami Kher) is a cashier at a government bank and the only earning member of a family that includes Sushant (an affable Roshan Mathew), her jobless husband who'd rather play carrom with his buddies than be an adult. There's some social foreshadowing in Sarita's routine, too: On asking the vegetable vendor if the potatoes are rotten again, he replies, "worms don't ask before they enter, madam". When an emasculated Sushant complains about too much aloo for dinner, Sarita jokes, "If you want to eat paneer, be a paneer". A smoothly transitioned flashback featuring a funkily-lit fridge reveals that Sarita was once an aspiring singer who choked in the spotlight of a reality show finale (which explains the disco balls). While Sarita resents her own existence, a plumbing problem turns into divine intervention: Her kitchen sink vomits out wads of waterproofed cash in a scene that's designed to look like a kitschy B-movie dream. Her prayers feel answered – until that fateful evening in 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces a radical demonetisation policy on live television.
Ironically, at this point, the film, too, starts to mirror its hassled protagonist's past: The stage was set, but Choked succumbs to a crippling bout of performance anxiety. The rest of it feels strangely bland and incoherent, lacking the kind of edgy ambition that its director Anurag Kashyap is widely known for. The narrative is dotted with random loan sharks, a bizarre jazz-style background score (last heard in the Bombay Velvet shootout), nosy neighbours, anti-establishment anthems and uneven editing. One can argue that the scenes are cut to reflect demonetisation abruptly interrupting the Indian economy, but that's just me hoping to find a method to the badness. This is only the second time Kashyap has directed a script not written by him. Choked is written by Nihit Bhave, and the director seems to be at the stage of his career where he's visibly experimenting with his own voice. Kashyap characters are behaviorally funny to begin with – dark humour inherently defines their everyman desperation. Therefore the conscious attempt to be situationally funny in Choked comes off as awkward, like a satire too shy to make a move. But I believe the film also suffers from a different disease.
Modern art is political by nature – storytelling reflects the ideological core of its makers, some more obviously than others. Choked, though, is more of an exercise in dissent than a work of art. The performances can't be faulted, especially the excellent Amruta Subhash as the theatrical Maharashtrian landlady. But the focus is squarely on taking a stand instead of making a film whose characters convey the sharpness of a stand. Much of Choked is overcome by the urge to critique the daftness of demonetisation. In the process, the filmmaking itself takes a backseat. For instance, the title song ("Paisa bolta hai") with lyrics that translate to "Men with money are shouting at the top of their voices; try to expose them and they change the topic" is forced into the narrative as an odd montage. Sushant and his friends are presented as pro-Modi commoners – you can sense that the makers are patronizing them for the heck of it ("do you know Modiji took penance in the mountains for years?" and "Genius! This will end terrorists and naxalites!") instead of fashioning them into naive humans who might affect the film's premise. At another point, the neighbourhood men start drunk-dancing with beer bottles after the PM's speech while the worried women look on. It makes for a sly send-up on paper, but the timing on screen seems stilted and…off. This is best epitomised by a stylized bank robbery sequence that triggers a climax so restrained that the film almost forgets to end. Not to mention the marital discord between Sushant and Sarita, which becomes its own eccentric beast once Choked stumbles towards a resolution.
The last time I felt similarly underwhelmed was during Ruchi Narain's Guilty – another reactive urban-angst film that spoke about the problem in the words of the solution. The narrative vibe also reflects the Tigmanshu Dhulia oeuvre, where events hastily unfold to exploit the mood over the emotional quotient of its occupants. In that sense, the single-word title, Choked, is fundamentally indicative of its flaws. It gasps for air, because the chants are too loud to register as a smart protest. Money may speak, but its language is rarely bereft of rhythm.