‘In the unending void of darkness accompanied by shades of neon green emerges a golden ball symbolic of a dream that is waiting for liberation’ this is a metaphoric impression that remains with me of the film which comes from the title sequence of “Choked”, and I think for me this summarizes the essence of the film. The film is about the life of an Indian lower middle class family, rather the common man and their simple dreams and aspirations. The film succeeds with its attention to detail in all departments to make us enter this universe throbbing with life. At one level it holds a mirror to us as a society and at the other tells us an endearing tale of a love story.
When you see an Anurag Kashyap film you have a certain expectation of a dark world engulfed by violence, however this film has a different approach. The film does start it with a mysterious man walking up an old building with suitcases on a full moon night but the playful music that soon accompanies the action (puts the plot into motion) helps cue the audience to the mood of the film. I would not like to call it a thriller as it does not do justice to a chilling end rather it has small moments of suspense created effectively by the timely drumming and tabla percussion.
Anurag in his own words says the film is primarily about the relationship and secondly about a socio political critique or about demonetization, which is just a mere setting, so I would like to start with a discussion on the relationship that is at the core of the film. And to reveal the relationship it is important to discuss the characters that form that relationship and I would like to start with Sushant Pillai even though the apparent protagonist seems to be Sarita Pillai. I think a great part of the character comes alive with the vulnerability that the actor Roshan Mathew brings to the role with his real-life persona which lends a childlike innocence to it and prevents you from not hating him for his lackadaisical attitude to life. It is also interesting that the narrative film starts with introducing Sushant to the audience before the protagonist Sarita (even though she is introduced in the title sequence through her metaphoric golden disco ball) so in an odd way the audience subconsciously identifies with Sushant before Sarita. Also we establish Sushant at home and Sarita as a breadwinner in the office (the bank). Even though we are constantly seeing the couple at odds with each other and fighting, it’s interesting to note that their relationship has not reached the state of bitterness of no return and this for us was made believable to a large extent due to the attitude and persona of Sushant. A turning point in the film for Sushant’s character is when he is made aware of his wife possibly seeing someone else and he realizes that he needs to take responsibility or he will lose her. He is gradually shown being perturbed and turning a new leaf and taking his creative pursuit seriously. The scene which best sums up Sushant’s vulnerability, pain, and sensitivity is how he plays the scene with his wife when he comes to her bank to deliver the tiffin. The conversation is revealing where he says “Is there something you want to tell me… you can tell me anything” Sarita does not take it kindly and rather throws the same question back to him. He then speaks his lines with a voice softly interrupted with hidden tears
Why do you talk to me in that way?
I take it, but
It’s your job, your plumber, your bank, your money
Everything revolves around you
Don’t blame me for anything later on.
There is a sense of being alone, lost like a child and he is not raging and angry like a jealous husband. This choice of handling the scene and the pain in it reminds me of a classic scene from the film “On the Waterfront” (directed by Elia Kazan) with Marlon Brando in the taxi when his elder brother shows him the gun and instead of anger which could be a cliché response there is pain and pathos and he says “Oh Charley ! ….. I could have class. I could be a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum….”
Sushant’s character represents a side of masculinity not very often seen in Hindi cinema where at the surface there is an irresponsible male (which we have all seen in Hindi cinema) but behind that façade there is a lost vulnerable child. And the film allows this child to grow up. It is in the end of the film that we realize that the journey of the film is a coming of age of this character who finds himself.
Sarita on the other hand is the protagonist of the film who we identify with and the plot pursues her closely. She represents the common woman of India who is many times the silent breadwinner of the house and suppresses her dreams for giving opportunity to her family to live a better life. I like the way she is first introduced to us in the film in her workplace when she is handling out money as a cashier to a customer. Her act is taunted as being a symbol of why India is left behind, while she counts the money (applying spit to her fingers to prevent the notes from sticking to each other which is considered the traditional Indian way money is counted) for the third time after the machine has done the same. And her reply sums up her character and attitude while the interaction by the filmmaker is also a comment about Indian society. She says “The machine has checked it twice, I have done it the third time (with spit on my fingers), I hope you won’t count it again”. And we have the nearby cashier lady smiling at this response knowing that it’s like a slap on the customer’s face. She has had enough of people taking her for a ride and will continue to do her work diligently but rather cold and yet calm with a simmering pain and anger within. However, there are scenes that also show us her softer side like when she is back home with her son and calling out to him lovingly with his pet name and he complains, she smiles to herself and that moment is the actor alive in the moment. Another shade of her character is when she does not react angrily to her husband when she is being accused of paying off his debt and is not grateful, she rather responds as a matter of fact, lets fight another day, I am getting late for work’ and asks him to fetch her the box of sindoor left in the bathroom (which he discovers is left by her on the flush and that rather upsets him). The film is made of such detailed moments and care that makes most scenes pleasurable to watch. Also,Saiyami Kher sensitively lives the character with her look bang on from the details of wearing a typical petticoat under her nightie to her effective body language and the way she carries herself with her saree. It is a welcome change to not have a glamourized or sexualized version of a woman on screen. However, a small let down was that the character so beautifully built up does not reach its logical end which I will take up later in the piece.
Proceeding now to the relationship itself, the film does not have a display of the typical romance between a couple but in an odd way the fights they have are interesting to watch for the chemistry between the couple. Another endearing detail is the presence of their son in-between their quarrels and he does not seem like a tormented kid but rather amused and helps lighten the moment most of the times. The scene in the bedroom while they quarrel and wake up their son as a witness to their version of the truth is one of the most adorable scenes in the film.
The scene that is the turning point in the couples’ s relationship is a beautiful scene which uses parallel cutting between Sarita’s bank being robbed and Sushant recording his song (which is long due) and at the climax of the scene when Sarita’s hidden cash (symbolic of her dream) is taken by the robbers and she tries to stop them she is hit with a gun and we cut to a kind of dreamlike flashback of Sarita singing the song in the competition for which she holds the pain of losing out due to her choked voice in the past. This is the point where the relationship starts breathing again and the words of the lyrics she sings bridges that gap from fantasy to reality…
The scene starts in a fantasy mode with a glamorous Sarita seen singing in close-up and sharing loving glances with Sushant playing the guitar “All our tiffs will only strengthen our bond”…
Everything you say has a sweet ring to it”
The visual of the scene now changes to stark reality where we see Sarita crying in her bedroom and there is a beautiful sound bridge where the lyrics of the song from the last scene are overlaid and continue on this shot like as if displaying the inner suppressed feelings hidden deep inside wanting to come through.
You are the winds beneath my wings
You and I can never be out of sync
All our tiffs will only strengthen the bond
Now Sushant has turned a new leaf and we see him being her pillar of support as he claims she is broken and believes she is a loser, he comforts her saying “Think of it as a rehearsal, when it’s time for the real show you will win. You will win. You are a winner.”
From now on Sushant takes centre stage and solves all her problems and in the climax rescues Sarita from the Tax department when questioned about the notes found in her bank drawer. He also manages to get handsome award money for showing them the source of the black money. He now plays the real hero and makes every wrong right.
It’s nice to have a happy ending and I don’t want to ask Anurag to remain stuck in a dark hole, however I have a few questions that come to my mind. Has the latter part of the film specially the ending disempowered the woman protagonist? It suddenly feels like a man is come to rescue her of all her problems and they live happily ever after. Even though Sarita going back to singing would be too cliché but maybe some kind of resolution to her dream in a complex way would help not leaving her desires unfulfilled and only seen achieved through her husband. Maybe it’s being too feminist but cannot help ask these questions. Is an Auteur trying to please a popular audience and make a feel good film with the trappings of dominant patriarchal ideologies? I doubt he would consciously do that! Looking at the empowered protagonists from his past films from the sexually liberated women in “Dev D” to the films with women playing complex protagonists at centre stage like Kalki in “That Girl in Yellow Boots”and the spirited Rumi in “Manmarziyah” this film in the end did not do justice to the soul of this character. Her resolution seemed incomplete and she seemed a puppet in the hands of Sushant after being such a self made woman taking charge all throughout the film.
So in the film the title ‘Choked’ meant many things at different levels but for me in relation to the protagonist, she did not gain her voice in the end of the film, and by making Sushant an active protagonist Sarita unfortunately ended up becoming a passive protagonist leaving her ‘choked’ for the audience in spite of her supposed smiling and happy avatar on screen.
Going now beyond the story to the social commentary -The script really became an actuality for Anurag when the aspect of demonetization came in 2016 as that was the missing piece that completed it and made it whole which was earlier an existing script written by Nihit Bhave. So even though it is not what the film is centrally about it is a very important backdrop and social critique that the filmmaker wants to engage in with the film commenting on Indian contemporary society and politics which he has done from his first film Black Friday and continues to do with most of his films. The audience is aware of his political leanings and he finds quite a few opportunities to take a stand against the Prime Minister Modi with significant one liner mouthed by his protagonist Sarita. But what I found most interesting was the playful scope and form that was explored with Hindi nursery rhymes in the end titles of the film that many times get ignored (specially with Netflix by the time the film reaches the end titles Netflix automatically removes that film and promotes the next film to you as a trailer without your conscious control and choice) and should be given a careful listen.
However what was more stimulating for me was the general comment on society addressing the tag line of the film ‘Paisa Bolta Hai’ and the grey area of ethical behavior which included black money and partaking of it by the main characters in the film. The film revolves around the importance of money in people’s lives and how it shapes relationships, buys simple pleasures of life and commands power and respect. How all throughout the film we are made to believe that it is Sarita who is using the black money but we realize towards the end of the film that her husband and neighbors are equally responsible or taking advantage of it. This is a subtle comment on society at large. So even though the anti Modi jibes and demonetization seems to be more in the forefront, it is subtler details like this that shine through as food for thought.
Above all the film is alive and throbbing due to its milieu set in the Maharastrian lower middle class Indian society based in Mumbai and without the unique characters of the caring yet agonizing drama queen tai, the gossiping neighbors, the carrom playing aji, the ‘don’t call me aunty’ neighbor, the silent uninvited relatives – the film would be empty of its larger canvas of life, it is this that completes the circle of the experience of this film as a social drama of one life yet encompassing so many.
Oorvazi Irani is an indie filmmaker, acting coach, and film educationalist and film critic. She has served on the jury of the International Children’s Film Festival among others. She is currently a full time Acting faculty at Whistling Woods International and as a Visiting faculty heads the film subject at the SVKM JV Parekh International School Culture Centre. As an acting coach she has played a pioneering role in introducing the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique to India.