Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers of Netflix’s Choked.
Nobody is doing it like Anurag Kashyap. I repeat, nobody is doing it like Anurag Kashyap! A few months into lockdown and we already have a new film under his new banner Good Bad Films getting a digital premiere. And it has managed to yank us all back into a subject we’re all too familiar with. His latest directorial, Choked dropped on Netflix on June 5 as one of the most hypable titles of the month. After all, it’s Kashyap we’re talking about, taking on the incredibly real subject of demonetisation and placing it in a noir-ish thriller. And that’s pretty much unmissable.
Now, between the neo-noir Raman Raghav 2.0, global hit Gangs of Wasseypur, Mukkabaaz and the stylised Dev.D, the director has familiarised Hindi cinema with a gritty realistic tone that’s unique to his films. It’s what keeps viewers coming back and it’s why Choked quickly climbed up on the must-watch list of quarantine movies. But the film is probably the most un-Anurag Kashyap film of his filmography. Starring Saiyami Kher (Mirzya. Special OPS) and Roshan Mathew (Moothon), Choked is all about Sarita, a woman in a serious cash crunch till she stumbles upon money spouting out from the drain underneath her kitchen sink. As a way out of her burgeoning financial problems and to make up for the lack of income from her musician husband’s end, she stows it away assured that her troubles could be over. But the PM had other plans, a certain cancellation of two entire currency denominations. That’s when things get chaotic.
After having my mind blown by the film, I had some major questions about Choked. So I took all my film-related queries to director Anurag Kashyap to delve obsessively into cinematic devices of critique in general and the film’s surreal narrative in particular.
In the past year, we have watched Anurag Kashyap getting vocal about his political views online (twitter) and offline (anti-CAA protests). While Choked isn’t a full-blown political satire or a movie about his own opinions, I had to ask – What’s it like picking a takedown of demonetisation in a time when the government is constantly trying to cancel dissent?
Anurag: We’re just holding a mirror to it and not critiquing it. Except for the last song. The last song (which plays during the end credits) is my whole criticism of everything. But, in the film, we’re being very objective because the idea is to look at the politics of the characters that inhabit the film rather than make them sound like me. And there was a failed attempt from my side to make characters sound like me. Saiyami refused to do it, Nihit (Bhave) refused to do it. They said “How can Sarita become so aware of politics and if she was, why didn’t she discuss it before in the film?” I had to cut it down and I saw the sense of it. So I saved my politics and kept it out of the film and saved it for the last song. The summation of the film is the politics of the film.
Full disclosure: When Choked‘s trailer dropped, my reactions were a mixed bag of anticipation and apprehension. Make no mistake, I was just as excited as the rest of the auteur’s fandom but Ghoomketu happened and that can send expectations down the drain. It didn’t help that the concept of demonetisation seemed to come out of nowhere considering that it happened in 2016 and nobody bothered to make a movie about it. Choked envokes a memory that has been coded in the Indian collective consciousness. But why now?
Anurag: The script came to me in 2015, it was about a cash-strapped woman who was finding money under the sink and it was like an absurd film, a surreal, magic-realist film. You don’t understand why the money is coming out of the sink. And it was about a marriage, a husband and a wife. It had no demonetisation in it. I had done No Smoking before and I love that idea because the idea attracts me. And I know the glorious failure of No Smoking, I remember it very well. We kept working to make sense of it all together so that it’s not only magic realist but more than that. Then demonetization happened as if something wanted our script to make sense and this film to be made. Suddenly, the whole film started to make sense and we made demonetisation a part of it. Then we got a logical answer to where the money was coming from, which I was looking for. And then it all came together. It has been a process of 5 years, 2015 I found the script, 2019 we shot the film and 2020 it’s releasing.
It isn’t an overstatement to say that Choked has found the most beautiful (and the only) onscreen narration of what went down in the country when demonetisation was announced. The panic-stricken faces of people and their dramatic reactions perfectly sum up the experience, much to the credit of the actors. The film conveys this awfully real drama in a scene right after the announcement that features Sushant (Roshan Mathew) dancing with his neighbours, celebrating the “historic” decision. How did you capture the disillusionment so perfectly?
Anurag: I didn’t want to dwell too much on what happened when demonetisation was announced so the idea was to create a euphoria which happens around every “so-called masterstroke” of our Prime Minister. He says “thaali bajaao” toh log sadak pe thaali bajake naachne lagte hai, “diya jalaao” toh log pataake phodte hai. I just wanted to capture the euphoria that happens around his announcements and finish it in the (dance) montage because when the song ends we are straightaway on the 10th day of demonetization. The story needs to keep moving forward. The bank robbery happens on the last day of the changing currency. So I had to encapsulate all that and we also needed to move forward so a lot of editing decisions went into it.
Sidenote: FYI, the dance sequence wasn’t even in the script’s final draft and was added in right before the shooting began.
Choked has running flashbacks that Sarita almost hallucinates, a bleak reminder of her one big failure – choking on a singing reality show’s stage. These are often accompanied by disco lighting, a far cry from the otherwise dark and dingy indoors most of the film is set in. Apart from that, the film is devoid of any stylized direction. You’ll see less of Anurag Kashyap’s signature style. That’s when it’s clear that there is something about Choked that hits differently. I figured these new directorial choices and visual language need some unpacking. The film’s cinematography and design was handed to Ravi Srivastava and Sylvester Fonseca who masterfully translated the surrealism of the script to the screen. What went into the makings of that look and feel of the film?
Anurag: It’s the amazing cinematography of Sylvester who designed the colour palette of the film with Ravi Srivastava, Prashant and everybody. Those (disco) lightings were a part of the script. The mood lighting and colours of the walls in each house showed the characters’ state of being. It was Sylvester’s choice so the only discussion we had was that we’re doing a thriller but imagine Sai Paranjpe making a thriller. It has to look like a Sai Paranjpye (Sparsh, Chashme Buddoor) thriller. So it’s not really a thriller, we are telling, a story a fable. Then everyone sat together and hashed it out, the mechanics of the water and everything. For me to buy into the idea, I had to understand the engineering of how the drain pipes would work. We wanted the water to be black because black is more cinematic, haha otherwise drain water is not so black, we just deliberately made it black.
No auteur worth their salt forgets to add intricate, focused shots in their movies. These seemingly random details directors tend to fixate upon are loaded with meaning and when you do the math, it all adds up in the visual narration. In terms of the visual storytelling, what are the devices used in Choked?
Anurag: We are seeing the film entirely from Sarita’s perspective. And because we’re seeing it from her perspective and her guilt and her thinking, maybe she’s special you know? The whole idea of her getting something that nobody else is getting. We fall into that paranoia and along with her we discover things whenever she discovers them. When Sushant finds Dinesh also has same kind of (cash)pouches, he takes notice and after that you see Sushant doing some welding and he probably made the drain. Sushant was the last one to find money but when you see the film the second time, you’ll understand the mechanics of it. The person in the lowest house would’ve got the money first. Sarita gets the money after the pipe bursts because it gets stuck and the pipe changes shape. Now all the money is coming to Sarita’s house and it’s not going straight down. If you go by all that logic and mathematics of it, that’s where we made choices. Details of things falling into your food is because we have dealt with elements like that. Sarita’s idea of a nightmare is her getting choked on stage and the marriage being choked. In the first draft, she was not a singer. It was about marriage being choked, then we made her a singer then we made it like how economies get choked, all those elements, we brought in and kept. That’s why we got the song only in the end. She loses the money and that’s also her perspective. That’s her biggest trauma, that song is not really a fantasy, it’s a trauma. It plays in her head all the time and finally finds a release and she cries and she’s able to admit it to her husband. And you realise that the problem was that she was so withdrawn, she kept it all inside. She probably never would’ve said it out so it came out as anger because she expected him to constantly understand. She tells the tai that “he’s put a picture (from the reality show) to remind me”. She doesn’t see that he likes that moment, it was their high-point. When she gets released of her trauma, it heals Sudhanshu as well, the marriage fights for itself. I need to play that out in my head separately before we go onto the set. It stays in my head only for the rest, I want them to catch it, I like it when people catch it. Then I feel happy secretly that oh somebody caught it. Because I don’t like to underline, explain and overstate it.
Okay, I’m going to admit that those are some massive revelations that can easily escape your notice. After all, subtlety, along with that immersive hypnotic vibe takes centre stage in Choked. Anurag stuck to the realistic elements to find a plot structure in it. A parallel can be found in the locking of the door and shutting the lights every night in that particular order. So what are the arcs used to bind the plot of Choked into a social commentary drama?
Anurag: Two things we had in mind was that it’s like a routine, the daily mundanity of life. It’s a routine thing for her. One day gets over, another starts, another gets over the third-day starts and another thing was, in middle-class houses, people keep their doors and windows open. Growing up lower middle class, we shut our doors only when there is a crisis at home or there’s something one needs to hide. When the film begins the houses have open doors, tai’s door is always open only when the cops come in the end, it’s closed. Doors and windows close and open as the film progresses. Those are things we had in mind, mostly psychological things the way they happen in life. When we are happy we want to show off when there’s a crisis we want to hide it because we’re ashamed of it. When we don’t have money or some problems, we become close-knit family that keeps things together. Lots of subtle things.
Taking it back to the story’s fundamentals, Anurag talked about drains as a symbol – “The idea was always there in the script from the very beginning. I saw it like keechad mein hi kamal khilta hai haha“
Yup, no outward political references here!
Choked is currently streaming on Netflix. Check out our Mash-o-Meter review here:
Cover image: Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India