Sarita Pillai (Saiyami Kher), a tired bank cashier, had asked her husband Sushant (Roshan Mathew), an unemployed failed musician hopping jobs, to stay away from home for a day. She had a chai-tambola session planned that afternoon. But the unavailing, drifting Sushant fails to stay away. As they go to their bed that night, in their cramped house in a Mumbai chawl, they scuffle, their 10-year-old son sleeping in between them. He was the only witness to their earlier agreement, and he is the only one to bring an end to the disagreement with his opinion. It is unsettling, but intimate – two warring spouses trying to find a middle-ground through their only offspring. It’s also telling of the despair in life when there’s little money at disposal and everything looks bleak.
Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai, directed by Anurag Kashyap (story by Nihit Bhave), is about spouses Sarita and Sushant, migrants in Mumbai from Konkan and Karnataka, who are choking under the burden of a financially fragile life. The dreams – of becoming a singer and a musician respectively – with which they had come to Mumbai has faded long back in just an attempt to make a decent living. Love has lost its charm in the absence of money. If Sarita is haunted by the thought of strobe light falling on her in a packed auditorium where she froze during a performance years ago, Sushant’s artistic ego has taken precedence and if anything, he seems disenchanted by the daily chores of life saddling the wife with all the responsibilities.
But then, something unexpected happens. Wads of cash start spewing out of Sarita’s clogged kitchen sink pipe. The everyday dreariness is replaced by new enthusiasm to liven up her life. The penny pincher in her is slowly giving way to a spender, surprising the husband who is still living under the stress of debt. Unexpected strikes again; this time as the demonetisation move of the Modi government. Sushant, with fractional money in his pocket, celebrates: “ab maza aayega”. He anticipates hoards of black money to come out from the rich. Sarita gets buried in work – with the insurmountable transactions happening in her bank even as she keeps plotting the way to exchange her own old currency notes.
Is it possible to have Kashyap make a film without politics intricately woven into the story? Seems unlikely, even when during the promotions of the film he has called it his warmest film with shades of Abhimaan and Sai Paranjpye films. Of course, it has those shades. And, maybe that’s why the opening music score (inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8 ½) fits perfectly well too. Like Fellini’s film that focuses on the battles of a creative person blurs the line between creativity and personal struggles, and charts on a territory of finding happiness within a life struck with intermittent difficulties, Choked, too, primarily explores that.
But the film is as much a critique of the government, of the social structure, and of gender biases that come into play in everyday lives. The story that unfolds in the October of 2016 takes into account the Modi government’s demonetisation move that year, two years into power as people wait for ache din. The politics in the film doesn’t reveal itself easily. It is, instead, subtly peppered in smaller moments, more as subtexts. That one scene when a customer in the bank sneers at Kher’s Sarita for counting the notes three times and blaming her femininity for that. Or another scene in the midst of a dinner when the news playing on TV in the backdrop tells the audience “to be like Modi” and to eat “mushrooms”. Or the aimless people of the chawl passing time by playing carom that soon turns into jeering Sushant “for being the wife” in the relationship. At various stages, the film calls out the prevalent corruption and then makes everyone an equal participant in it. But unlike Kashyap’s earlier films, the politics is never overt and maybe that’s why the film seems too subdued at most times, exposing the holes in the script.
While Kher is surprising as a non-glamourous, lower-middle class woman, who is quite a contrast to her image; it is Mathew’s Sushant, who in his portrayal of a flawed, damaged artiste grabs attention – often evoking feelings of disgust. Then, the neighbours – the interfering and loud Sharvari Tai (Amruta Shubash) and the nosy Neeta (Rajshree Deshpande), add a little spice and flavour to the story.
Sylvester Fonseca’s camerawork that closely captures the claustrophobia of life in tenements and goes deep into capturing little details is commendable. Through the film, Karsh Kale’s music clubbed with Garima Obrah’s lyrics and Rachita Arora’s arrangement may not have been prominent, but as the end credit rolls and the song, 500-1000, composed on the tunes of nursery rhymes plays along, it does the magic. Echoing the politics of the filmmaker – visible more prominently on Twitter -- it may not be wrong to wonder if the song is going to become a popular protest anthem when the nation is ready for one.
Film: Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Starring: Saiyami Kher, Roshan Mathew
Streaming on: Netflix