‘Choked’ – an offbeat film


CHOKED – PAISA BOLTA HAI, a feature film by Anurag Kashyap which shows the impact of demonetisation on the middle class has been streaming online since June 2020. Shoma A. Chatterji reviews it.

I wonder why a talented filmmaker like Anurag Kashyap should waste his time getting entangled in “Me too” and other controversies instead of concentrating on what he is good at – making films.
After Black Friday and Dev D, Kashyap has been consistently inconsistent. His films appear like sparks, at times striking and at times, fall with a dull thud. So, this critic approached his latest OTT feature film Choked – Paisa Bolta Hai with some trepidation.

The time span is around a week overlapping the demonetisation announced by our PM Narendra Modi in November 2016, by a few days on either side and the place is a dominantly Maharashtrian neighbourhood in Mumbai zeroing in on a middle-class family with a husband Sushant (Roshan Mathew), his wife Sarita (Saiyami Kher) who works in a bank and their eight-year-old son. The film was shot in 2016 but released on NETFLIX only in June 2020.

Says the director Kashyap who is as loud-mouthed as he is uncompromising about this film, “Choked is a very uncompromised film. We created the interior set of the house and shot on green screen to create the right atmosphere, and that shows in the film.

The film is based on a unique premise. Sarita suddenly discovers rolls of currency notes wrapped in cellophane when she tries to clean the choked drain under her kitchen sink. Her husband is a wastrel and works as and when but does not hold a regular job so this leads to some rough edges in their married life, the son caught in the constant squabbling between his parents. But they still love each other. Sarita keeps the secret to herself and though she is shocked when demonetisation is declared because she has old currency notes, she very cautiously takes them to her bank branch and changes them clandestinely. She is thrilled on the one hand and terrified on the other because she really does not know what to do or what will happen.

Her neighbours chip in with their sad stories of money problems on the heels of demonetisation, but Kashyap skirts around any politics around the issue and steers clearly away from mentioning names lest the film run into censor problems. He chooses to focus on the impact of the discovery by Sarita and what happens when demonetisation threatens her sudden good fortune.

The film steps into the narrow confines of the neighbourhood where the neighbours are struggling with their own problems and most of them share a warm relationship with Sarita. There is a touching scene showing her next-door neighbour not letting go of Sarita’s wrist unless she listens to her immediate problems. The scene which shows Sushant offering their living room to sleep to the wedding guests of the neighbour for a few nights is also good.

The sub-plot actually could have been explored in detail to make a very different film. Sarita’s back story is rooted in her participation in a reality music show where she failed because she had a sudden panic attack and lost her voice completely when the lights came on and she could see her audience. She is haunted by it the rest of her life so when she realises that her suddenly discovered stash of notes means nothing, she accepts she will always remain a failure. This is perhaps for the first time for a Hindi film to have tackled the concept of panic attack during a performance and though it comes across in bits and pieces, it has been smoothly woven into the main story.

Saiyami Kher carries the film very confidently and firmly on her slender shoulders. She is backed by a solid supporting cast where each character, big and small, contributes to her evolution within the film. The cinematography by Sylvester Fonseca, sticks to the non-glamorous mounting of the film and keeps it as natural and as spontaneous as possible. The repeated scenes of the doorbell being pressed, the lights switched off at night and the door latch opened and closed are used like a metaphor to suggest the utter boredom of their everyday lives. The sound track and the music track are well-placed while the art direction by Vilas Kolap, set decoration by Seema Kashyap not only fit neatly into the ambience but also enhance its factuality. The editing may seem a bit jerky at places but that may be explained away to the sudden switching of scenes from the interiors of Sarita’s home to the staircase leading to her flat to the bank, the lined up crowds outside the bank the narrow alleys the film moves through and so on.

The prefix ‘Choked’ used with the title can be read differently. One is the direct reference to the choking of the kitchen drain but thrown against a larger horizon, it also suggests the “choked” life of an ordinary housewife who finds out those extraordinary dreams of winning at a reality show or suddenly getting rich will never be her destiny. ‘Choked’ also refers to the sudden shock that demonetisation had on different families and people whose lives took a complete tumble immediately following demonetisation.

The phrase ‘Paisa Bolta Hai’ offers a different perspective on money. Money jingles and the sounds carry different meanings for different people. Money “talks” in a metaphorical sense – through the change in the financial status among families and people which works both ways if demonetisation is brought in – some people may chance upon sudden affluence while the rest will be left with tremendous worry. A family’s social status is also determined by the money that jingles in its bank balance.

What pulls the film down is its melodramatic climax which simply fails to go with the rest of the film or even with its basic premise. The twist in the tale introduced in a hurry to whitewash the husband so that harmony is restored in the pair is extremely compromising, but for what and for who? The film has been premiered on an online streaming site like Amazon Prime so who is Kashyap trying to please and why?

Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.