June 5, 2020
Saiyami Kher, Roshan Mathew, Parthveer Shukla, Amruta Subhash, Rajshri Deshpande, Upendra Limaye
Sarita Pillai nee Sahastrabuddhe’s life mirrors the humdrum lives of millions of middle-class Indian women. She wakes up every morning, cooks, prepares her kid for school, sends him off before heading to her own office in teeming Mumbai where she spends her day in mechanical, emotionless toil as a bank teller before returning home to cook, serve her kid and husband Sushant, admonish the latter for being a layabout, clean up and sleep.
Forward to the next day. Wake up. Repeat. Sleep. And the next. And the next. Wake up. Repeat. Sleep. Wake up. Repeat. Sleep.
Her listless existence and her evident disinterest in Sushant are punctuated occasionally by lively kitty parties with women in the neighbourhood who revel in gossip, including about members of their own group.
We know from the start that there is and will be more to Sarita, heroine of director Anurag Kashyap’s Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai (Money Talks) that is streaming on Netflix from today. We know we can expect more than that surface mundaneness for two reasons: first, the film’s smartly executed prologue indicates some hanky-panky with money; and second, hints are dropped early on about an event in the past from where her marriage went downhill.
Sushant for his part has more spark and appears to have more going for him than she does although he does nothing. He hangs around contributing zilch to the housework, casually plays his guitar at home and plays carrom with friends in the building. Sarita’s tetchiness towards him inexplicably does little to dampen his affection for her or dull the twinkle in his eyes, but it also does not enthuse him enough to lift a finger to share her burden around the house.
Then one day, as the trailer has already revealed, Sarita unexpectedly comes across a stash of cash and for the first time in the film we see her face come alive.
Choked is about what she does with that secret horde, and through that adventure it tells the story of a life stuck in a rut, a relationship at the edge of an abyss, greed and corruption in the era of demonetisation.
At first Choked is intriguing. The manner in which Kashyap portrays Sarita’s boredom and sense of hopelessness in her role as wife and home manager is striking. Her act of latching a door and switching off a light night after night after night before going to bed is used to remarkable effect to underline the repetitiveness of her routine and the monotony that domesticity can bring.
Sarita’s empty eyes and irritability when contrasted with Sushant’s easygoing nature and their son’s charm allude to a background that must have been far more interesting than her current busy yet godawfully drowsy routine.
Besides the lead trio of Choked are a good fit. Sarita is played by Saiyami Kher who had the misfortune of making her Bollywood debut with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s worst film till date, Mirzya (2016), but managed to reveal her innate charisma even in that dismal enterprise. The young actor has an impressive personality and speaking eyes. In the role of Sushant is the attractive stage and Mollywood artist Roshan Mathew whose brief filmography includes an aching portrayal of a man in love with a man in a conservative society in Geetu Mohandas’s otherwise middling Moothon. And Parthveer Shukla who plays their son is a little fireball of darlingness without the irritating precociousness that so many directors seem to demand of their child actors.
Once the nuts and bolts of their relationship and the neighbourhood dynamics are established though, despite a series of twists and turns right till the end, the narrative is curiously lacking in energy.
Sarita and Sushant’s back story, from which the title Choked is drawn, is not quite as fascinating as it is made out to be. His subsequent irresponsible behaviour and the progression of their equation are unconvincing.
Kashyap and writer Nihit Bhave appear to be making a point about Narendra Modi’s decision in 2016 to demonetise select Indian currency notes – the point being that the corrupt and the powerful found their way around it, while ordinary citizens suffered. However, they seem to have internalised it so much, they say what they seem to want to say so hesitantly and in such a roundabout, meandering manner, that Choked almost comes across as praise for demonetisation, a measure that has had a disastrous impact on the Indian economy. There is even a song and dance featuring the hero celebrating demonetisation that is placed prominently in the narrative. The collective effect of these elements sadly dilutes the impact of the cheeky song that plays with the rolling credits in the end. If Choked is intended as a sarcastic critique, it depends too heavily on the viewer being indulgent towards the director, being aware of his politics and off-screen stances and having studied the country’s reaction to the present prime minister.
And no ya, the play on “choked” does not work either.
What does work is the constant flow of dialogues between languages in the way they naturally might in the Mumbai home of a couple in a mixed marriage. although Mathew swallows some of his lines as a result of which I often could not make out what Sushant was saying in his mother tongue. Of course a lot can be forgiven because he is cute. Ironically, his Hindi diction is excellent, and comes as a package with a delightful trace of a Malayalam accent. The precise way in which he says “contracts” and pronounces “L” or the way she pronounces “D” are fun to hear because their accents are not being caricatured.
There are a couple of standout scenes such as the one in which Sarita and Sushant fight in bed with their kid lying asleep between them and another involving the couple, a kitchen drain and top-notch sound design by Gautam Nair. The construction of both scenes is vintage Kashyap, as is the mischievous closing song.
What is not vintage Kashyap is the lack of clarity and sharpness in what he seems to be saying about demonetisation and achhe din.
And exactly what is the point in showing us a lazy jerk of a husband who never does any work at home, is inconsiderate to his wife but is somehow presented as a sweetheart, is made to sound at one point as though he is willing to do anything for her but oh how unfair is she, and in the end gets to save the day?
Kashyap’s last two breathtakingly good films were Mukkabaaz and Raman Raghav 2.0. Choked wants to say a lot, but is not even as hard-hitting or entertaining as his tweets.
Rating (out of 5 stars): 2
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: IMDB