Pick of the Week: Choked
Anurag Kashyap's latest film Choked is a whimsical satire about demonetisation, the first film to be made about the subject. Replete with quippy dialogue, an excellent star cast and a stylish score by percussionist Karsh Kale, it's a worthy watch despite becoming somewhat weighed down by its own ambitious intentions.
“Paisa bolta hain”. Money speaks. But money does a lot more than speak in this Anurag Kashyap film. It appears at places it shouldn’t, giving unsuspecting and tired people a candlelit glimmer of hope, while threatening to extinguish it any minute.
The film begins in a middle class household in Mumbai, with Sarita (Saiyami Kher) as the sole breadwinner of the family. Her husband Sushant (Roshan Mathew) is jobless and in debt, but no good around the house either, which leads to friction between them every day. One day, Sarita is woken up in the middle of the night by a gurgling sound coming from the broken kitchen sink pipe. What she thinks to be remnants of tea leaves and food turn out to be wads of cash, carefully wrapped in plastic, regurgitating from the drain pipe. Will this be the end of their financial woes or will this tempt them down the slippery slope of greed?
Set against the backdrop of demonetisation, Choked views its impact on the poor and middle class families who suffered amidst the chaos, instead of the policy’s intended victims - the rich and corrupt, forced to cough up their black money. The marital discord between Sarita and Sushant could be any young, middle-class couple’s story in the overflowing city of Mumbai. Screenwriter Nihit Bhave does not go deep into their painful backstory however, deliberately, and focuses instead on the results of those shattered dreams - continuous household friction, financial woes, future responsibilities and unrealised needs. Sushant’s laziness and lack of ambition is a stark contrast to Sarita’s quick-thinking and diligent planning for the future. The dynamic between them is loving but tense and fraught with fights, fights that they even wake up their sleeping child to referee.
Kashyap shows us that toxic masculinity is born out of a man’s insecurity in the face of society. At home, Sushant is constantly taunted by Sarita for not helping around the house financially, which pricks, but doesn’t persuade him to action. But when his carom playing friends call him the ‘woman of the house’, with Sarita wearing the ‘pants in the family’, he gets angry and irritated. Sushant isn’t an aggressive type though, and you can see that he really does love his wife. He is a sensitive man, a dreamer, not unlike Sarita herself, except that he benefits from patriarchal privilege and doesn’t feel the need to ‘grow up,’ even as he sees the pressures of adulthood being shouldered entirely by his wife. Essayed brilliantly by Roshan Mathew, who we saw in Geetu Mohandas’ Moothon, Sushant is a character for whom we feel sorry and at the same time, are irritated by, because we see in him the same potential Sarita first saw. Mathew pulled off a performance that had warmth and depth, despite the palpable danger of him swerving into the caricature lane.
From the beginning, we side with the heroine (played to perfection by Saiyami Kher) and wonder where her secretly gotten gains will take her. We feel sorry for her too; a simple, sensitive woman overrun by responsibilities, saddled with a wastrel husband, tattled on by well meaning but gossipy neighbours and forced to confront the failings of her ambition of becoming a singer. The story of how Sarita choked on stage runs parallel with the kitchen drainpipe, as if her voice is suddenly regurgitating along with those bank notes. Her relationship with her neighbours, especially with her whimsical downstairs neighbour Tai (played effervescently by Amruta Subhash) is endearing and well balanced, as they provide a source of comfort and sympathy, along with a regular dose of neighbourly nosiness.
One night, Tai comes rushing up to Sarita’s house, with laughter bordering on panic, saying that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes are gone, washed away along with her dreams of being able to host a respectable wedding for her daughter. Until her announcement of the chaos that was demonetisation, the film’s pace has a provocative yet sustained rhythm to it - quite literally too, with Karsh Kale’s stylish, jazz inspired background score keeping both the narrative and its suspense on their toes.
After this however, things go slightly awry on screen with Microchips in currency notes, Jio, PayTm, achche din being thrown around, in a scrambled, very obvious manner, instead of the slyly unfolding narrative that the film is until then. Hereon, demonetisation feels deliberately pushed into the story rather than the target of a sharp voice of reason. The narrative too, scatters as we move towards the end, much like a child sliding down a slide with no one to hold him at the end. The conflicts that demonetisation brings to screen get resolved as easily as they are conjured and unfortunately the film’s take on demonetisation becomes as ineffective as the policy itself was by the end.
Now streaming on Netflix. Anurag Kashyap is a critically acclaimed writer, actor, director and producer. He made his directorial debut with the yet unreleased Paanch, starring Kay Kay Menon. As a director, he is known for films like Black Friday, a controversial and critically acclaimed film about the 1993 Mumbai blasts, No Smoking, Dev D, Gulaal, ‘hat Girl in Yellow Boots, and Gangs of Wasseypur.