'Choked' Film Review: Anurag Kashyap's Netflix Movie Has Smart Commentary, Weak Storytelling

Much like demonetisation, which makes for the film's backdrop, 'Choked' is a seemingly promising idea squandered by inefficient execution.
Roshan Mathew and Saiyami Kher in a still from 'Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai"
Roshan Mathew and Saiyami Kher in a still from 'Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai"

Hindi cinema’s enfant terrible Anurag Kashyap has a new movie, oddly titled Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai, out on Netflix and it makes for a curious watching experience.

Given the political events and protests of last year, it’s clear that Kashyap has attempted to keep his politics from seeping into the drama or using a character as a stand-in for his voice. But however hard a filmmaker tries, it’s impossible to divorce politics from art and in Choked, Kashyap’s sly slant pops out, just like mysterious wads of cash do from the kitchen sink of Sarita and Sushant’s modest Mumbai apartment.

The premise is pretty straightforward: a young, lower-middle class couple have a tense marriage. The husband, Sushant, (Roshan Mathew in excellent form) is a struggling musician surviving on odd jobs, from driving Ola cabs to selling insurance. For the most part, he stays at home, much to the frustration of his wife, Sarita (Saiyami Kher), who’s been a cashier at a nationalised bank for eight years.

They’ve a son and the interactions between the three indicate that this used to be a happy household until the couple’s ambitions to become musicians were thwarted after a failed attempt at reality show glory. How long can one live with mediocrity, Sarita asks her neighbour, Sharvari, played by Amruta Subhash. She seeks an escape and escape turns up in the form of dirty money.

Literally filthy.

Sarita discovers bundles of cash neatly wrapped in plastic pouches oozing out from her kitchen sink, which has faulty plumbing. The money pops out every other night and the film essentially explores how this changes her life.

Choked, written by Nihit Bhave, adapts the tone of a thriller but unfortunately fails in delivering a satisfying pay-off. Kashyap, a master in building tension through character interactions and a sharp use of claustrophobic spaces, doesn’t seem very surefooted despite this being a territory where he otherwise reigns. A lot of the film’s loose ends remain awkwardly untied, subplots are quietly abandoned and the end feels like a narrative betrayal.

“'Choked' is foremost, a story of the fragility of marriage, the duplicity of people and about the consistently thwarted dreams of the middle-class.”

What works for the film are the characters and the manner in which the director is able to locate them in a specific class milieu. The mood, the banter, and the excellent ensemble, barring a few of Subhash’s hysterical cries. Because Choked is foremost, a story of the fragility of marriage, the duplicity of people and about the consistently thwarted dreams of the middle-class.

And the film is at its strongest when it captures the friction between Sarita and Sushant. The two characters encapsulate a power dynamic that the average Indian male is yet to reconcile with. What happens when the woman of the house is assertive in her role as the sole breadwinner and confidently calls out the man who squanders his time playing Candy Crush?

Kashyap examines how societal perceptions interfere with and shape individual notions of masculinity by fleshing out Sushant’s character in all its layered complexity. He’s a neglectful husband who overcompensates by displaying sporadic emotional support, none of which minimises his inadequacies or his entitlement.

Sarita is crafted as determined, assertive and quietly ambitious, her desire to break out of the cycle of austerity always clear in her resolute eyes. Saiyami Kher sinks her teeth into this role, impressing with an accent that rings with authenticity and a performance that never strikes one as laboured.

Roshan Matthew is fantastic here, bringing a quiet vulnerability to his part. It’s a delight to watch his performance. Both actors evoke believability, bringing to life the cracks, the monotony, the anguish and the love (or its lack thereof) within a delicate marriage.

Now to its politics. While demonetisation offers a provocative point of conflict, Kashyap’s examination of the crisis is, at best, cursory. He goes all out in showing how well the move was received, juxtaposing a memorable dance number with the misery of people waiting in serpentine queues and breaking into desperate fights when inside the banks.

The director seizes the opportunity to comment on Narendra Modi’s seeming invincibility: he illustrates how the leader’s image remains unaffected (and even strengthens) in the minds of his admirers despite his policy failures. In subtle ways, Kashyap calls every faction out, including the propagandist television media (we hear a news channel talking about mushrooms being the secret behind Modi’s general well-being). There are characters who speak glowingly about Modi, but knowing what we know of Kashyap, it’s all very unmistakably wink-to-the-camera.

So as far as recording an event that caused immense trauma to both, the economy and the country’s most vulnerable, goes, Choked is an essential film, a timely response to a moment that has been consciously erased from the public memory.

Two points in Nihit Bhave’s screenplay are reminiscent of older films: the plumber witnessing a moment of domestic disquiet felt very Kapoor and Sons, while a line that Sarita says to Sushant, about him pretending to be a good husband even when nobody’s watching, was clearly inspired from Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do. The film’s Birdman-esque background score of live drums (Karsh Kale) feel gimmicky and interject the screenplay instead of complementing it.

Despite moving around with great economy, Choked never becomes more than the sum of its parts, its critique of middle-class greed and systemic corruption never reverberating beyond the dingy apartment complex that the protagonists occupy. It aspires to be a Jaagte Raho while wearing the outfit of a mystery-thriller and ends up becoming neither.

Towards the end, the film suggests, quite literally, that the rot in the system starts from the top and goes all the way to the bottom, right into the sewage. But its closure, which hints at rewarding integrity over morally questionable behaviour, feels naively idealistic, almost as if it belongs in another movie.

Quite a downer then because Kashyap knows too well that both he and this country are capable of a lot more complexity.