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Choked is streaming on Netflix.

Nothing is ever one-dimensional in Anurag Kashyap’s films, and this broadly realist fairytale almost cracks under the weight of the many meanings it has to sustain. First and foremost it’s a portrait of the struggling lower-middle-class in Mumbai in the final quarter of 2016, around the time India’s far-right Hindu-nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi announced the sudden withdrawal from circulation of two denominations of banknote, both widely used for cash savings. (The rationale for the move was to decimate India’s ‘black economy’ and disrupt the funding of criminal and ‘terrorist’ activity, but it created protracted social turmoil and hit India’s industrial output and GDP. It had no discernible impact on the ‘black economy’.) Modi’s announcement is glimpsed on TV in the film.

Nihit Bhave’s original script focuses on one couple in a failing marriage – bank teller Sarita and her deadbeat husband Sushant – but broadens the picture with subplots involving their downstairs and ground-floor neighbours: a family planning a wedding they can’t really afford, Sushant’s cowardly-but-greedy ex-business partner.

It’s clear that many of these characters voted for Modi and at least initially support his action, but the film deliberately understates its political dimension. The plot turns on Sarita’s discovery of wads of banknotes in the building’s drain, offering a fairytale answer to some of her problems but – thanks to Modi – creating a lot of new ones too. The cash turns out to be from a slush fund made up of illegal bribes or inducements to a local politician (political affiliation not mentioned), and there are sequences throughout the film showing suitcases full of cash being carried into and out of the building by the man’s assistants, one of whom is creaming off some notes for himself. No-one gets very worked up about the political corruption: that’s taken as a given.

The title Choked refers to both the drains blocked by ‘dirty money’ and Sarita falling silent in mid-song at a talent show, thereby blowing her chance of a big cash prize. The conflation of the two is made explicit near the start in a special-effects shot that tracks along the drainpipe into which the cash has been dropped and finds the talent-show glitterball at the bottom.

You can see why Anurag Kashyap, perennial thorn in the side of Indian complacency, was drawn to this metaphor: talent contests as a potential way out of lower-middle-class penury, juxtaposed with a politician’s slush fund so abundant that rolls of banknotes can be stolen from it without anyone noticing, and concealed by being flushed down the drain like excrement. But the metaphor feels slightly forced: more a writer’s conceit than a piercing comment on social inequality, much less a credible attack on Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Still, the panorama of life in this stratum of Mumbai society, from the secretive, unneighbourly political aide on the top floor to the defensive chancer on the ground floor, is well drawn, often wittily scripted and always convincingly acted. The film’s underpinnings are solidly social-realist, and strong enough to keep the show afloat as a dramatic entertainment. But Kashyap can never resist reaching for a ‘wow’ factor – it’s his most cherishable quality as well as his occasional downfall – and the metaphorical dimension here is the weak link in an otherwise satisfying movie. The sketch of apartment-block residents, the talent-contest flashbacks and the political implications never fully coalesce.

The sense that Choked pulls some of its punches may have something to do with the fact that this Netflix-financed production is the inaugural film for Kashyap’s new production company Good Bad Films, replacing his former outfit Phantom Films, which lasted from 2011 to 2018. (The new company logo, seen at the start, is a minor classic.) The movie-director character ‘Anurag Kashyap’ in Vikramaditya Motwane’s satire AK vs AK (2020) – played, of course, by the man himself – is reviled as an indie maverick without a hit to his name: an exaggeration of the truth, but it is true that Phantom Films never fully recovered from the flop of Kashyap’s expensive Bombay Velvet (2015). Maybe he was playing it a little safe this time? 

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