Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Saiyami Kher, Roshan Mathew, Amruta Subhash
The title Choked applies to many things in this film – a pipe, a marriage, a woman’s voice, her life, a society, a country. Anurag Kashyap rolls political critique into a suspense drama about a middle-class woman who discovers that a pipe in her kitchen is spewing cash. It’s exactly the miracle her cash-strapped family needs but then Prime Minister Modi announces demonetization and everything goes haywire.
Choked is about the intersection of the personal and political. Where the film and its makers stand on demonetization and the PM is made clear from the start. In an early scene, Sushant and Sarita, a once-loving couple whose marriage is souring in front of our eyes, are watching television. We don’t see what they are seeing but we can hear someone extolling the virtues of eating mushrooms because that is the secret of the PM’s vitality and good health. The anchor says: Mushroom khao, Modi ban jao.
With a few lines, Anurag and writer Nihit Bhave establish the PM’s cult of personality and his appeal to his core audience – the middle class. So Sushant, like other residents in the building, believes that demonetization will cleanse the country of black money. But Sarita has no time to consider these possibilities because she’s an exhausted and harassed bank employee. Post-demonetization, the bank is overrun by people trying to exchange notes. When an elderly lady begs Sarita to give her more money, she replies with a blank expression: Bank mein paise milte hain, sympathy nahi milti. Unke haath jodiye jinko vote diya tha. It’s a precise skewering of the current government.
The film renders effectively the oppressive routine and ordinariness of Sushant and Sarita’s lives – he’s a musician who is too lazy to hold down a job but that doesn’t stop him from demanding better service from his hardworking wife who supports them both. When he says to her: Hafte mein teesri baar aloo khila rahi ho, you want to lean into the frame and slap him. She robotically works, cooks, cleans and remembers with remorse, a more glamorous life that she left behind – she was once a leading contestant on a reality show. Those scenes, colorful and brightly lit, are in stark contrast to her drab existence now. Sarita is a woman haunted by failure. Her dreams are so contained that even when she has wads of cash, she doesn’t rush out to buy clothes or jewelry. Instead she splurges on household items like curtains and cushion covers.
Choked is strongest when Anurag is dealing with emotions and relationships, like the fraying bond between husband and wife; their connections with the neighbors who are their support system but are also nosy, gossipy and hypocritical. Amruta Subhash is exactly right as Sharvari Tai, who somehow manages to be both compassionate and opportunistic. DOP Sylvester Fonseca’s roving camera establishes the limited spaces that the drama unravels in – we mostly move between the building and the bank There is that typically Mumbai sense of claustrophobia – so when Sushant and Sarita fight, they must do it with their son sleeping between them.
Saiyami Kher captures every nuance of the beleaguered Sarita. She’s terrific in a scene in which Sarita finally breaks down
But the suspense track in the film is not as sharply written. The idea of pipes throwing up cash is instantly intriguing. Choked begins with a delectable title sequence in which money is unpacked and repacked for storage but the film doesn’t deliver on the promise of this. The weakest link is a goon who complicates the plot further and the climactic action, which feels forced, almost as though Anurag and Nihit were in a hurry to wrap things up. There are several sequences in which Karsh Kale’s jaunty background score is drumming up an urgency that the screenplay doesn’t have.
Essentially, Choked is Anurag in minor key. There are sporadic moments of stylistic flashiness but mostly the storytelling, like Sarita, is subdued. There is little of the raw, visceral energy we associate with the filmmaker. But as usual, he elicits solid performances from his actors. Saiyami Kher captures every nuance of the beleaguered Sarita. She’s terrific in a scene in which Sarita finally breaks down. Roshan Mathew – you might remember his wonderful performance in Moothon – has less to play with but he enables us to see the vulnerability and weakness under Sushant’s belligerence.
The tagline of the film is Paisa bolta hai. What does the money say? It’s telling that Sarita has to step into dirty black water to pick up the wads of money. This is literally black money. And no good comes of hoarding that.