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Netflix ‘Choked’ Review: Anurag Kashyap’s Film Chokes Where It Matters The Most. But Saiyami Shines

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Netflix India’s content pipeline has seen a constant stream of lukewarm original movies that look promising but end up leaving you disenchanted (What Are The Odds, Ghost Stories, Hasmukh). Hopes rose again with Anurag Kashyap’s Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai, starring Saiyami Kher, Roshan Mathew, Amruta Subhash, Rajshri Deshpande, Upendra Limaye and Tushar Dalvi. Especially since the plot promised Kashyap’s take on a topic as explosive as PM Modi’s demonetisation. If done right, this could be the magic ingredient (baking soda) to unclog Netflix’s choked pipeline.

Was it? And did it? More importantly, should you sink your teeth in Choked? Let’s find out.

The Plot: 

The Choked trailer pretty much leaves nothing to imagination about the world you’re about to enter. Sarita (Saiyami Kher) is a bank teller, with a husband (Roshan Matthew) who’s probably useless, a son who’s aware that his mom runs the show in every way, and a life that is mundane and not at all what she wanted it to be. It is all about to change when wads of cash neatly rolled up in bags start bobbing up through a clogged drain in her kitchen.

For everyone, including her husband and neighbours, this overflowing drainage issue is a nuisance. But one man’s trash is another woman’s treasure, quite literally. For Sarita, it is a windfall, a way to finally one-up her sad existence. She embraces it with a feverish stoicism as she gets down on all fours and puts her hands in places in places quiet revolting, to fish out her salvation. 

‘Kichad mein hi kamal khilta hai’, perfectly describes Sarita finding a fortune in the muddy filth. But unbeknownst to her, PM Narendra Modi announces demonetisation. And while people, like her husband, are celebrating this ‘masterstroke’ by Modiji, housewives like her and her neighbour Sharvari Tai (Amruta Subhash), are incapacitated by the news, physically, mentally and financially. Her treasure is now worth as much as her failed dreams of being a singer and her jobless husband—nothing.

Writing, Direction, and Editing 

As an audience that craves patterns, we’ve grown accustomed to expecting certain things from certain filmmakers. From an Anurag Kashyap movie, we expect a gritty, complex narrative, with enough subtext to drive you up the wall with theories, and a colour palette that is familiar to his other works. You’ll find some vestiges of it in the visual storytelling of Choked—in the camerawork, the lighting (especially a crazy nightmare sequence), the way the characters and their world are captured, and the hints of dark humour employed sporadically.

And yet Choked is perhaps not quintessential Kashyap work. It isn’t overly ambitious, as edgy and as explosive as the Kashyap experience we’re used to. For the most part, the film reflects writer Nihit Bhave’s style more than it does Kashyap’s.

I love the basic premise and the introductions of each character. Sarita feels like a dominant personality at home, but she’s helpless in the face of her husband’s attitude towards her. Even while she gets a fortune, she thinks her husband might still be the ruin of her in a terrifying nightmare scene. When demonetisation strikes, she realises that life has dealt her a blow once again, and her once-upon-a-time saviour is now going to be another burden she must carry.

Sarita’s husband Sushant is emasculated at home, but like most men, turns it into a toxic masculine ego issue. Sarita thinks he blames her for choking on stage during her performance, but Sushant is the one who has choked now in his duties towards his wife and kid, while Sarita continues to overcompensate for her one mistake.

The neighbours are aptly dramatic and nosy; the buildup is perfectly crescendo-ing and we’re poised for something interesting. Any moment now. And then….

Nihit Bhave’s writing in Choked, if plotted on a graph, would see a steady rise until demonetisation enters the story. Post that, just like our economy did post that fateful evening, everything falls flat and you’re left a little confused as to the true purpose of it all. Is this movie trying to critique the note ban? Is it trying to show how demonetisation screwed everyone? Is it trying to be a fable that says don’t take what’s not yours, whether it is black money or obtained through a stroke of luck like Sarita’s?

The rest feels more like a rapid montage of how disillusionment happened in the wake of demonetisation while the bewildered but brainwashed citizenry continued to think this was a great idea. Throw in some real footage of bank queues, a very predictable twist, and a half-heartedly written villain, and you’ve got a second half as feeble as the government’s defence of the ‘much needed economic move’. The editing then also feels like its losing its grip, and even Karsh Kale’s music doesn’t help much.

The ending feels convenient and IMO, a little blah, because it doesn’t make as much of an impact as its beginning. It doesn’t say anything at all, but simply gurgles like a clogged drain. You’re waiting for some wads of cash to come up, but it’s just dirty water this time.

Acting

Have my opinions about Saiyami Kher turned around or what? Mirzya was a disaster, and I guess I’d pretty much written her off, but Choked woke me up to what she can do. She steals the show, only occasionally relinquishing to other talent around her like Roshan Matthew and the amazing Amruta Subhash. I love how the camera also treats her beautifully, capturing those expressions that in turn capture your attention in every frame. The eyes, chico!

I wish there was more to the other characters, especially Matthew’s, and we could do demonetise certain characters, such as Reddy. But either way, the performances seem to have kept the fumbling second-half being written off completely.

Verdict

November 8, 2016, is a day not many people are likely to forget. The United States got Donald Trump as President, and India got a gift from PM Narendra Modi that we didn’t ask for and we couldn’t even exchange for something better—demonetisation. Ever since that shoe dropped, I’ve been waiting for Bollywood to cinematise this mammoth event that rendered India catatonic and then spun us into an overdrive to exchange 500 and 1000 rupee notes that were no longer legal tender. 

People were surprised at how hard housewives were hit by this news. Hadn’t we all known that women are such precocious budgeters, always saving everything they can and stashing away wads of cash all over the house? When demonetisation happened, husbands realised that their wives were sitting on small piles of fortunes of their own, now rendered useless unless exchanged for legal tender. Sarita’s predicament felt much more tragic because it wasn’t her savings that were destroyed. It was like winning a lottery, and then finding out the company paying for it has become bankrupt.

My favourite thing, apart from Saiyami of course, were the sly and not-so-subtle jabs (When Sarita asks “ Kaun Modi?” because she is so shocked at the news; the scene in the beginning when she is counting bank notes, and when she snubs her husband who cannot stop singing praises of the PM). But for both Sarita and the movie, I hoped there was more. 

Unfortunately Choked’s fate was foretold in its own title—it flowed freely in the first half but got all choked up where it mattered.

Choked is currently streaming on Netflix.

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