Director – Anurag Kashyap
Cast – Saiyami Kher, Roshan Mathew, Amruta Subhash, Rajshri Deshpande
Hugely enjoyable but slightly ham-fisted, Netflix’s Choked is a minor film from a major filmmaker; a kitchen sink drama in which an actual kitchen sink plays a pivotal role.
Retrofitted by director Anurag Kashyap to suit his singular sensibilities, Choked is another attempt by the prolific filmmaker to unpack contemporary socio-political themes through the prism of genre cinema — it’s a magic-realist metaphor for clogged dreams, and a striking satire of sycophancy.
Watch the Choked trailer here
Sarita, having already been established as the sole breadwinner of her middle-class Mumbai home — her husband, Sushant, is jobless and in debt — is woken up in the middle of the night by a noise coming from the kitchen. The sink has been giving them trouble lately, but what they’d chalked down to some stuck ‘sabzi’ turns out to be something else entirely. Upon closer inspection, Sarita observes bundles of money, covered in plastic, being regurgitated from the drainpipe.
It was around this time, after watching Sarita stare in bafflement at currency notes no longer in circulation, that I was struck by a thought. It is the sort of thought that makes one overestimate their intelligence. “Could this be about demonetisation?,” I wondered, feeling a rush of excitement I’d otherwise associate with discovering that a new Christopher Nolan movie plays around with the concept of time.
Subliminal hints had already been made, the most telling of which being that the film is set in 2016. Bear in mind, I watched Choked a couple of weeks ago, without having seen a trailer or read a logline. I had no idea that just a few scenes later, a neighbour would barge into Sarita’s home with the news that the government has demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes — the OG Modi mandate that was intended for the rich, but ended up punishing the poor instead. The fistfuls of cash that she was just about getting accustomed to, Sarita realises, is almost as worthless as her no-good husband.
Roshan Mathew, Saiyami Kher and Amruta Subhash in a still from Choked.
A part of me still wonders if restricting the film to being a veiled allegory of demonetisation, instead of leaning on it as a plot device would’ve served the story better. But this decision, in essence, is what every filmmaker straddling the mainstream and the arthouse must debate. Would avoiding the very mention of demonetisation have got the message across as effectively? Or would it have been too abstract? Who knows. It’s all for the best.
Because as it stands, Choked is already a wonky movie, just as likely to unleash a bank heist as it is to participate in impromptu ‘mohalla’ dance parties. After the Prime Minister makes the announcement, Sarita’s entire society congregates in the courtyard and performs a celebratory jig, juxtaposed to news footage of endless queues outside banks and ATMs. It’s the centrepiece of the movie, a scene that not only highlights the cruel irony of what is about to unfold, but also encourages self-reflection.
Bang in the middle of the party is Sushant, who after maintaining an insufferable attitude throughout the film, transcends into full-blown repulsiveness when he watches the PM deliver his speech, and reacts to it by saying, “What a great leader.”
It’s a rather unforgiving character, but Roshan Mathew peppers Sushant’s insecurity with a dash of dignity. Choked, in its heart of hearts, is a relationship drama about a crumbling marriage, and a keenly observed dissection of masculinity in modern India.
And, it is Saiyami Kher’s film from start to finish. The actor brings an instant warmth to Sarita that is vital to how Choked is perceived. If we hadn’t supported Sarita in her decision to stash the cash for herself, the film would have been strangled by its own set-up.
Having confined not just his actors but also himself inside a cramped apartment, Kashyap displays an unusually restrained visual approach. In a lot of the film’s early bits, cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca’s camera seems to have been inspired by David Fincher’s sleek work in Panic Room — gliding across kitchen counters, and asserting an omnipotence over the action.
Choked doesn’t have the slapdash appearance of a lot of Kashyap’s earlier work; instead it feels positively meticulous in its structure. The importance of music, however, is just as pronounced here as it has ever been in any film that the director has made. Karsh Kale’s jazzy, percussion-driven score is sublime.
Choked might not be up there with the filmmaker’s finest, but it’s his most unusual movie since No Smoking — and it most certainly fulfils its duty and performs the Heimlich on a streamer that is gasping for air after a string of back-to-back blunders.