Anurag’s Kashyap’s Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai is a kitchen-sink drama – literally. In the Netflix original film, wads of notes bubble up along with slime through the drainpipe for a bank teller mired in debt, creating a cash flow that is both windfall and liability.
The backdrop is the demonetisation of large-currency notes in 2016. The setting is Mumbai, where the hum of commerce never stops (except, perhaps, for a pandemic). Choked begins in October 2016, a month before the event whose repercussions are still rattling the Indian economy. Sarita (Saiyami Kher) is trying to hold it together. Her husband Sushant (Roshan Mathew) keeps flitting from one job to another and is in debt. Sarita’s bank job keeps the household running, but her forehead is constantly crease-lined and her irritation at her husband barely concealed.
Who can blame Sarita? One of the better-explored themes in Nihit Bhave’s screenplay before it goes off the rails is the failure of men, both at the top levels of government and in the household. Sushant’s brittle relationship with Sarita explodes in a night-time argument waged through loud whispers even as their young son sleeps between them. Sushant’s fecklessness extends to his chosen language: his surname is Pillai, but he mutters to himself and curses in Tamil.
Even as Sarita assumes the role of Ali Baba and begins to partake of treasure that doesn’t belong to her, the prime minister appears on television. Sushant lauds Modi as the man who will single-handedly destroy the black economy, but Sarita, who has to deal with long queues and anxious bank customers, knows better.
The best reaction to the momentous decision is by Sarita’s neighbour Sharvani (Amruta Subhash): she laughs madly, speaks incoherently, and nearly cries. It’s a great scene, and few actors could have carried it off.
This is also the exact point at which Choked, which is swimming along nicely, loses its way. The movie hereon becomes a fuzzy exploration of the corrupting power of money, the ability of women to best a financial crisis, and Sushant’s redemption arc. The exact role played by demonetisation remains a puzzle. The policy failure serves little purpose other than delivering a very mild and barely effective critique of the Modi-led government.
The attention-deficit narrative finds ways to string together Sarita’s handling of her household balance sheet and her thwarted dreams of becoming a professional singer. The idea of being throttled plays out in a literal-minded way for Sarita. The better metaphor, which remains under-serviced, is the ominous sound that accompanies the surfacing of the cash from the drain, as though a swamp monster is making its way upwards.
Choked benefits from three solid performances. Saiyami Kher made her debut in the Telugu-language Rey in 2015, and has acted since in one Hindi and Marathi film each and a web series. Choked finally gives the light-eyed actor a role of substance and merit.
Roshan Mathew is striking too as an unlikable character doesn’t know whether he is coming or going. Amruta Subhash is excellent as Sharvari, who is worried about an upcoming wedding in the family but has enough energy to gossip. The actors stay focused even as the plot thrashes about as it tries to link the gooey stuff in the drain with the mess that abounds beyond the kitchen.