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Using the November 2016 demonetisation as a background, Anurag Kashyap’s Netflix film, Choked, explores ideas like women’s unpaid labour and the stress of finances on a marriage.
When demonetization happened, I was in the US. Even as millions struggled back home in India, we too were in a panic, as we wondered what to do with the Indian rupee notes that we had with us here.
Among all the stories I heard back then, it is the ‘confession’ of a female neighbour that has stuck the most in my mind.
“In India, my MIL controls all the finances. I have to ask her for every little thing. So, I sneak some money every time and hide it away here in the US, so that the next time when I go to India, I will at least have some money to call my own. Now I don’t know what to do. Either I have to say silent and let the money go waste, or I have to tell them I have it, which means that they will come to know my secret and stop it from happening in the future,” she confided to me one day, a look of pure desperation on her face.
It was she who came to my mind, when I first saw the trailer for Anurag Kashyap’s Choked; a story about a woman who has a ‘secret’ stash of money that is suddenly worthless when demonetization rolls in.
In Choked, Saiyami Kher plays Sarita, a competent bank employee and the frustrated wife of an infuriating man-child (Sushant Pillai, played by Roshan Matthew.) She has given up her dreams to allow him to focus on his, but he shows no inclination to work hard for them. His unemployment adds to the financial stress of the lower middle class household that runs on her salary, and this stress, among other things, leaves Sarita exhausted and worn down. Until, that is, her choked kitchen sink starts throwing up rolls of illegal black money, which have been stashed in the plumbing, by another resident of the apartment building where she lives. Just as she starts feeling secure, however, demonetization is announced, and the game changes, yet again.
This certainly is an interesting premise, and one that the film really leans on. It shows us through the eyes of women, how policy decisions like these are not just universally bad, they are also essentially patriarchal, as they fail to consider the lives and needs of women.
Gendered harms of demonetisation
While demonetisation was an inconvenience to everyone, the harms it caused to womxn and LGBTQ+ people were quite serious. As this insightful piece had pointed out back then, in India, 80% of women are not part of the banking system, and they often save money in cash, sometimes hidden away from abusive husbands, and demonetization left them particularly at risk.
As one woman, speaking to the journalist in the piece says, “This black money-white money is a conversation for men,” she laughed. “For us, money is food for the children.”
Choked brings this out beautifully, in a scene where they show the characters –Sushant, Sarita ans Sharvari Tai, first hearing the news about demonetization. Where the women are shocked and struck speechless by the announcement, because they are worrying about the on ground practicalities of their daily lives, Sushant celebrates, saying, “Brilliant! Now all the black money will be flushed out. That’s a great leader!”
For Sarita, the problem is worsened because she is also a bank employee, who now has to deal with the chaos at work, and not just the financial instability at home. For her neighbour, Sharvari Tai (a fabulous performance by Amruta Subhash!), a single mother who is in the midst of wedding preparations of her daughter, it is near disaster, as she suddenly find that her life’s savings are now worthless, and that the wedding may have to be cancelled because she cannot pay the vendors and caterers.
In another memorable scene, Sarita is shown talking to an elderly female customer at work, who says that she is too old to stand in line everyday to get money. Sarita replies, “Bank me paise milte hain, sympathy nahi. Unke haath jodiye, jink vote diya tha.” (Banks dole out cash, not sympathy. Get help from the people you voted for).
Even outside the context of demonetization, women and their work are not valued. The film also comments on this through Sarita’s life. She comes home tired and harried, only to find the house dirty and unkempt. Everything she does to keep the household together is met with disrespect and derision from her husband, who can’t even hang up a wet towel, but who can complain that he is ‘forced’ into eating potato curry for the third time in the week.
People around her praise him for doing the bare minimum, i.e. bring her lunch to office when she forgets it, but no one seems to see or appreciate that she sacrifices even her little wants (like new cushion covers or curtains, which she is finally able to buy with the money she finds!) to support him.
Her fatigue with it all shows. Saiyami Kher fabulously emotes that through her entire physicality.
Despite touching upon these points however, the film ends up having some messages that are at odds with everything that has come before.
Throughout the movie, Sushant is shown to be an insensitive husband, who doesn’t value his wife. He doesn’t take any responsibility for household chores. He brawls with his friend who challenges his masculinity by pointing out that he is the ‘wife’ in the relationship because he depends on his wife’s salary. He is inordinately proud of the fact that he ‘provides’ for her by giving her Rs 2000 per month. He has her followed by a detective because he suspects she is cheating on him. And from Sarita’s point of view, he also constantly holds over her head the fact that she ‘choked’ while participating in a televised contest, and makes her feel like a failure. At no point does he show enough genuine love or care for her.
Yet, he gets to be the ‘hero’ in the end, and swoop in and save her though the film doesn’t satisfactorily explain this.
The film also presents women as being gossipy, bitchy and self-serving. Women at a mehendi function are shown criticizing Sarita as soon as she leaves. An elderly woman makes a video of her without her consent, to be shared around as gossip. Worse, it even presents Sharvari tai, who is earlier shown as empathetic to Sarita, as being manipulative. She exaggerates her anguish on purpose, in front of Sarita, to manipulate her into getting her cash from the bank.
Is this really an Anurag Kashyap film?
I had high hopes from this movie. Anurag Kashyap has never shied away from being unfiltered in his movies, but Choked seems watered down. His characteristic rawness and honesty seem missing from the screen.
He has said in an interview that he purposely kept his personal politics out of the movie, because it doesn’t fit with the realities of his character’s lives. “It was very clear that my personal politics, which I put on Twitter, can’t be the politics of the characters in my films. They are not that privileged. If someone is struggling with daily survival, they don’t have time to think about politics. They look at what will benefit them. It’s the job of filmmakers to chronicle the times — where is it based, the city, milieu and time.”
However, even keeping the politics out, the movie could have been more hard hitting and impactful. Personally, I feel that the movie did not live up to its potential.
I wouldn’t suggest that people give this film a miss. Do watch it, and have with those around you, the conversations that this film tries to, but eventually doesn’t.
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