Most Anurag Kashyap films derive their power through a distinct voice. Sometimes it’s literal: dialogues, songs, background score. Sometimes metaphorical: postmodernist whims, absurd humour, gore. His films are feverish and busy, at times too busy, like a supple gymnast on ecstasy, always up for a trick or two.
So, even when his movies don’t work, just the spectacle, encompassing all shades of desperation and ambition, invites intrigue. But his latest release, Choked, streaming on Netflix, is an outlier. At the outset, it’s not about quality, but authorial drive: is this even a Kashyap film?
Choked opens to a middle-class Mumbai couple, Sarita (Saiyami Kher) and Sushant (Roshan Matthew). Sarita works at a bank; Sushant does nothing. Money is always a problem, and so is the sewage-vomiting kitchen drain. That drain is the film’s Chekhovian gun. Choked’s opening credits shows someone lowering a wad of notes in a similar drain. At some point, you expect the bundles to bob up in Sarita’s kitchen.
It’s a simple, reliable way to build intrigue, but that is the only thing that keeps you interested during the film’s first 30 minutes. Because otherwise, Kashyap and writer Nihit Bhave give us little to cherish. The mundane settings or unremarkable characters aren’t the problem; it’s the absence of curiosity about their lives and engagement with their personas.
Almost right from the start, the film is marked by a baffling listlessness, a foreign trait in a Kashyap production. For a thriller, Choked’s plot plods. Its dialogues are pedestrian. The characters’ desires lack the sting that makes them magnetic. We do get glimpses of their failed past lives — Sushant wanted to be a musician, Sarita a singer — but they don’t inform their present in urgent, purposeful ways. It’s all too vague and cursory: a bird’s eye view of a house whose doors are open. Take the opening credits out, and you’re soon left with a question no viewer wants to ask, “What’s the point?”
The film gains momentum around the time the Chekhovian gun is fired. Late at night, Sarita opens the door of the fridge, and via its light, we get an ingenious transition to her past: she’s on stage, competing in a reality show but, after a point, she’s unable to sing; she chokes. Cut to present, she goes to kitchen and finds fortune in sewage. The background score intensifies; the cuts are motivated; the character, alive and scheming, is finally confronted with a choice: should she tell the husband or not? But unfortunately, this sense of purpose doesn’t last beyond a few minutes.
Then, around the halfway mark, we get a new subplot: demonetisation. This could have elevated, or at least altered, the movie, but Kashyap takes refuge in superficial political commentary. There are perfunctory news clips and attempts at humour, Sushant considers it a masterstroke, while Sarita’s friend (Amruta Subhash) is so distressed that she can’t stop laughing. Which is followed by several awkward transitions: an abrupt (ironical) song celebrating demonetisation; an equally jarring quasi-qawwali; and a clichéd, predictable dream sequence that should have been discarded in a preproduction meeting.
Choked doesn’t suffer from lack of characters or directions. But nearly nothing in this film is pursued with determined intelligence. A loan-shark, Reddy, who starts bothering Sarita, fizzles out by the film’s end. Sushant and Sarita’s relationship begins to deteriorate, but it never finds a meaningful, poignant arc. Ditto Sarita’s relationship with money, her neighbours, or her own self, when she starts using the illicit stash. Filled with failed pursuits, Choked doesn’t give us anything to hold on to. Besides, a few plot points seem forced and defy common sense. Even the acting, just like the film, goes through the motions.
Kashyap’s movies are often suffocated by ambition. But this Netflix release lies on the other end: it’s too muted, too disinterested. Bombay Velvet at least made you angry. Choked does nothing.