Choked - give me de-money

Choked, the new Netflix original Hindi movie, has the singular distinction of being probably the first Anurag Kashyap movie where, instead of a litany of impassioned invocations of sisters and mothers, the strongest cuss word is as mild as the quintessential Marathi insult bawlat, which means stupid. That isn't the only deviation from the usual milieu that his gritty movies like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), or even a Dev.D (2009) inhabit - the dark, seamy, crime-infested underworld, populated with people who shoot and kill first and talk later.

Choked is set in a typical middle-class Bombay residential apartment building, populated by the usual suspect list of families, helpful but prying neighbors and tai, mai, akkas. Sarita Pillai nee Sahastrabuddhe (Saiyami Kher) lives in one of the apartments, or 1BHK flats as the Bombay lingo goes, with her husband Sushant (Roshan Mathew) and son Sameer. The marriage is a fraught one with Sarita, who works in a bank, as the only earning member, and thus money, or the lack thereof, is a permanent bone of contention. The dynamics of the marriage are set well in an early scene in which the husband and wife fight in stage whisper mode with their son sleeping between them. It soon escalates into an all out shout fest with the hapless son being awoken and dragged in to play the role of the International Court of Justice between the U.S. and Russia. The money problem seemingly gets a reprieve late one night, when a choked pipe under the kitchen sink starts regurgitating a black gooey mess loaded with bundles of plastic wrapped currency notes, seen only by Sarita having a sleepless night. That windfall, which repeats nightly, becomes Sarita's secret stash, only for that world to be thrown into turmoil by the most infamous 8 pm TV address to the nation on Nov 8, 2016. The monkey wrench of demonetization, one of the worst decisions of the modern era, that was thrown into the Indian economy, hits home to Sarita, as it did to millions of women like her for whom that secret stash was a lifeline, a shot at financial independence and a booster shot of self-esteem.

The supporting cast is predominantly Marathi as befits the ambiance of the building. Amruta Subahash, who was the Kenya-based cop Yadav in Netflix's Sacred Games Season 2 (2019), plays Tai, Upendra Limaye, a veteran Marathi actor who has acted in several Hindi movies like Chandni Bar (2003), Page 3 (2005) and Sarkar Raj (2008) bringing in the Marathi flavor, plays loan shark Reddy, and Rajshri Deshpande, who was Gaitonde's wife in Sacred Games Season 1 (2018), has a small role as one of the neighborhood busybodies. Roshan Mathew does an adequate job of playing the husband who can't seem to hold down any job for long, not contributing to the household even in kind, but still trumpeting an outsize ego. The movie revolves around Sarita though, and Saiyami Kher in only her second Hindi movie outing since her debut in Mirzya (2016), does a nice job of portraying the fatigue and stress of juggling work and home, and the self-sacrifice of personal dreams and ambitions that women like her proffer at the altar of family, interspersed with flashes of past brilliance and present anger at a future filled with the prospect of ennui.

With the widespread impact of demonetization that sent shock waves through the system, and whose aftershocks continue to reverberate even today, there was an intriguing premise here for a movie well worth exploring. The socio-political angle, and the personality cult aspect of it, is hinted at a couple of times but Kashyap and the script pull their punches. And after setting up all the pieces on the chessboard with a good opening and mid-game, the director and scriptwriter, rush to offer a draw to the viewer like a player running out of time on his game clock. As every South African cricket fan experiences in every Cricket World Cup, when it mattered, they choked.

June 6, 2020

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