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'Choked' Review: A smart and sly Anurag Kashyap ride

This Netflix original by Anurag Kashyap is about a no-nonsense bank teller who finds wads of cash turning up through the kitchen drainpipe

Saiyami Kher in a still from ‘Choked’, directed by Anurag Kashyap.
Saiyami Kher in a still from ‘Choked’, directed by Anurag Kashyap.

Where were you the evening most of the country’s currency notes were declared worthless? You remember, of course, for you dare not forget. I was in hospital, trying to get my father discharged, and was suddenly sent scrambling from ATM machine to ATM machine. People across India literally died standing in queues at the bank, their life savings held at ransom, made available to them only in tiny, arbitrarily decided increments. All while TV news anchors made up stories of currency notes with electronic locator chips that could be located even when cash was buried underground.

Four years after demonetization, here is a Hindi film about that reverse alchemy—where money turned to paper. Choked, a Netflix original directed by Anurag Kashyap, is a clever film that concerns itself with effect more than cause. The film’s heroine is, fittingly, a bank teller. Sarita is a no-nonsense working woman with a wastrel husband, a woman so visibly in charge that their young son routinely tattles on his father, knowing which parent buys his crayons.

One night, Sarita discovers money. A clogged drainpipe in her kitchen bubbles over with excess water, black and dirty, and to Sarita it is tantamount to striking oil. Rolls of cash, tightly wrapped in plastic, bob up to her through that kitchen drain every night. This payout is life-altering. Suddenly there is money—money to pay her husband’s debts, money to buy a wedding present, money for new cushion covers. This is her windfall and, because of her secrecy, something that finally feels like hers alone, while not being hers at all.

From this wishful premise, Kashyap constructs a terse thriller. Written by Nihit Bhave and shot by Sylvester Fonseca, Choked is compelling from the start. We side completely with the heroine—an excellent Saiyami Kher—and wonder where she will take her moistly gotten gains, while circumstances box her in. Her husband remains a sore spot, neighbours continue to prevail on her for favours, and rumours begin following her around. There is no room for her to cut loose, and even her kitchen—the all-important kitchen where her oil well is located—is overrun by strangers.

Then comes hysteria. One evening, Tai—the downstairs neighbour, played by the fantastic Amruta Subhash, really energizing this film—rushes in to Sarita’s house, babbling and dumbstruck. Busy preparing for her daughter’s wedding, Tai’s world has caved in. “The 500 note has gone," she says, laughing with the shock. “The 1,000 note has gone. Modi has discontinued them." Sarita is understandably unable to process this. The bank teller can’t comprehend banknotes losing their value. “Kaun Modi?" she asks. Who, after all, could do such a thing?

Her husband, Sushant, knows who. He swells with pride as they stand in front of a television set on 8 November 2016. An admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and a man deep in debt, low in prospects—he is overcome by the schadenfreude felt by those with nothing to lose. The wealthy who have squirrelled away their black money will finally suffer, he believes, rejoicing on the streets with gusto. “Did you know how many years Modiji lived like a hermit in the Himalayas?" he asks his wife, gushing about this leader who actually does things. “Yes," answers Sarita, looking longingly at her kitchen drain. “He made and sold tea, and swept his floors too. If you did just that, I would be content."

The couple fights without restraint, even waking up their sleeping child to referee who-said-what and what-was-promised. Roshan Mathew is impressive as Sushant, a role a lesser actor may have rendered a caricature. Kher, playing a woman who once took the stage to sing but promptly lost her voice, says little and carries the film with a strongly internalized performance. She is effortless when cleaning up after husband and son—and as effortless when taunting them. Her varied concerns are made visible to the audience, but Sarita tucks them away, hiding them behind the same sigh. If only she had the time to play poker.

Through the underachieving husband, Kashyap makes a point about masculinity and emasculation and the way toxicity is born out of insecurity. Sushant is usually meek at home, taking instructions from his wife, the breadwinner, but can’t accept being mocked by friends. There is an inevitability to his thickheadedness, standing out in sharper contrast with the way Sarita quite simply gets things done.

These fine performances are accompanied by an underbaked background score—Karsh Kale, trying too hard to go all percussive, à la Birdman—that feels too loose for a film this precisely coiled. Watch out for a fantastic, claustrophobic nightmare sequence. The climax provides a smart swerve, one that underlines how we all commit the same sins, and how in a city where it’s hard to tell our own arguments from ones neighbours are having, even secrets aren’t entirely our own. Choked keeps us guessing, but also throws in a clumsy “villain" character, entirely unnecessary in a story where the bad guys are all too obvious. We don’t have to wake any child to ask what was promised and what ended up happening.

We got through demonetization because of kindness. The kindness shown to us by patient cashiers, polite branch managers, guards who kept it together—people whose workload tripled without adequate warning or compensation. The first time we meet Sarita, she’s at her cooperative bank. A customer mocks her for double-checking the cash a machine has already counted out. “The machine has checked it twice, I have checked it a third time," she says, wearily but calmly. “You won’t check it again then?" The customer falls silent. She knows what she’s doing. This heroine counts.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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