Choked Review: Anurag Kashyap’s demonetisation saga is curiously uncertain and dull

Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Choked’ has finally landed on Netflix today. Four years after demonetization, the movie is about that converse alchemy—where money turned to paper. Choked, is a clever film that concerns itself with the effect more than the cause. The film’s heroine is, fittingly, a bank teller. Sarita is a no-nonsense working woman with a jobless husband, a woman so visibly in charge that their young son routinely gossips on his father.

One night, Sarita discovers money. A clogged drainpipe in her kitchen bubbles over with excess water, black and dirty. Rolls of cash, tightly wrapped in plastic, come out from that choked wipe to her through that kitchen drain every night. This pay-out is life-altering. Suddenly there is money—money to pay for 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 aspiring premise, Kashyap constructs a brief 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 damply grown money. Her husband remains a sore spot, neighbors continue to prevail on her for favors, and rumors begin following her around. There is no room for her to cut loose, and even her kitchen—the all-important kitchen where she gets the money from the drain is also occupied by strangers.

Then comes craziness. One evening, Tai—the downstairs neighbor, played by the fantastic Amruta Subhash, really reviving this film—rushes into Sarita’s house, jabbering 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 delight in another person’s misfortune felt that he has nothing to lose. The wealthy who have collected 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 reduced 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 adopted 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.

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

The climax provides a smart turn, 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 neighbors 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 showed 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.

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