The director on the idea behind his latest thriller, setting the film against the debacle of demonetization and why this feature goes down as his most satisfying filmmaking experience yet
“If Sai Paranjpye were to make a thriller, what would it be like?” wondered Anurag Kashyap. The acclaimed director, best known for his dark and zany filmmaking (Dev.D, Gangs of Wasseypur, Sacred Games), takes a leaf out of auteur filmmaker Paranjpye’s iconic oeuvre of work for his latest film Choked. While Paranjpye’s approach to class (Katha, Sparsh, Chasme Buddoor, Disha) bore her singular sense of satire and sensitivity, Kashyap adds a layer of urgency in his ode to the yesteryear director.
Kashyap’s films have undergone a noticeable tonal shift in the last two years. Breaking away from directing his own scripts, the filmmaker has explored light-hearted romance, slapstick comedy and even visceral horror through the writings of Kanika Dhillon (Manmarziyaan) and Isha Luthra (Ghost Stories) in the aftermath of the dissolution of Phantom Films (the production company co-founded by Kashyap, producer Madhu Mantena and directors Vikramaditya Motwane and Vikas Bahl disbanded in 2018 due to an employee’s allegation of sexual assault against Bahl). Sans the signature gun-toting gangsters and darkened political landscapes, his recent ventures have compelled viewers to watch his works in a new light, even leading audiences to rethink the makings of a classic Kashyap offering. For Choked, the acclaimed director joins hands with long-time creative partner and writer Nihit Bhave (Sacred Games, Lust Stories) to turn the lens right back at his viewers.
Unfolding in a MHADA building of a predominantly Maharashtrian neighborhood—where three houses make a floor and the only thing setting them apart are the wall’s colors—Choked delves into the lives of Sarita (Saiyami Kher) and Sushant (Roshan Mathew). Both migrants in Mumbai, the married couple deal with the city’s economic pressures while warring with the increasingly bitter fall-out of their unfulfilled dreams. When the kitchen sink at home starts leaking money overnight, the once cash-strapped Sarita wonders if she can tackle more than just household expenses and Sushant’s debt with the newfound prosperity.
The director first acquired the film’s screenplay (at FICCI Frames’ Script Bazar) in 2015. Almost a year passed wherein Kashyap and Bhave battled with the script at hand, unable to collectively pinpoint the bite they thought was missing in Choked; the Netflix feature that was originally a tale about marriage. On November 8th of the following year, the Indian 500 and 1000 rupee notes were withdrawn from use as legal tender and the director-writer duo instantly knew setting their film against the backdrop of the 2016 demonetization fiasco would bring its story full circle. “After that, we pretty much improvised everything together,” says the director. Bearing three films as references for the final picture—Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s musical drama Abhimaan (1973), Paranjpye’s comedy drama Katha (1982) and Ritesh Batra’s epistolary romance The Lunchbox (2013)—Kashyap and Bhave then set out to make Choked under the banner of the director’s new production company Good Bad Films. About the long run-up to its release, Kashyap remarks, “Hum log ka bahut time chala gaya lekin har cheez jaise chahiye thi, waise humne ki hai (It took almost five years but we made our film the way wanted to make it.)”
A dream everyone can relate to
Choked opens with a mysterious figure climbing up a flight of stairs, unlocking the door to a bare apartment. Moving with purpose, the man deposits wads of cash in small plastic packets, neatly assembling them before stashing them down a depository in the bathroom drain. Little does he know, there’s a leak; discharging fortune right into Sarita’s kitchen. For Kashyap, this scene is not revelatory of Choked; he doesn’t view the drama as a suspense. The director, instead, finds the film’s essence in the title sequence that follows, where viewers traverse down the drain into darkness. For a moment, the screen dazzles with pinpricks of light; the beams waxing and waning into disco balls before fading to black. This is the part of the film that Kashyap thinks viewers will relate to the most.
“We don’t all get to live our dream—some of us get lucky and some of us earn it—but we don’t all get to live our dream,” says the director. He recalls Sarita’s tryst with the limelight, how the protagonist finds fame only to forfeit it. “Sarita wanted the spotlight to shine on her and she missed that dream. From that spotlight, her life then turns to the dirt that flows out from underneath the sink,” he says. The director thinks people will—in some way or the other—understand the experiences that shape the struggles of the characters in Choked; that they will recognize themselves as part of the same journey those with no common background or history often find themselves on, grappling with or submitting to the established order of the world. “We wanted that (empathy) to be the most important thing. We never wanted folks to shift from there to anything that’s political,” he says.
Of dissent: the personal and political in art
That’s a tall bet for a film that’s ultimately all too entrenched in national discourse, but Choked does manage to strike a balance between the politics of need and the politics of choice. Aiming to portray the common citizen trying to make ends meet, the director-writer duo envisioned their characters’ politics to be representative of what they want from life. “They’re affected by what’s happening but they’re not trying to have an opinion; they’re just trying to survive,” says Kashyap. The director maintains that politics is ultimately not the larger play in the characters’ lives or the film, but a device by which to reveal their struggles and motivations. For downstairs neighbor Sharvari taai (Amruta Subhash), that’s getting her sister married; for Sarita, it’s putting food on the table; for Sushant, it’s believing he’s meant for something more.
Kashyap even goes on to make a stark distinction between his characters’ politics and that of his own. “I’ve tried to maintain this right from (his debut 2007 feature) Black Friday onwards: My politics cannot be a character’s politics in the film. I might have an opinion but my film is going to be neutral, it’s going to be about people that are inhabiting the film. My voice-over is not going to tell you what’s best or anything—because that’s a very dangerous path I’m treading where I would then be bordering on propaganda,” says the director, noting that he reserves his dissent for Twitter.
The people of ‘Choked’
Chronicling the stories of the Indian lower middle-class, Kashyap and Bhave approached their characters the way Paranjpye approached hers; casting actors who could understand the lives of people inhabiting matchbox houses. “We wanted our main actors to be migrants into the city and I was very clear about them not being from North India; I’m a North Indian and I’ve explored North India enough,” says the filmmaker. Choked’s lead actors, Kher and Mathew, hail from Nashik (in the west) and Changanassery (in the south) respectively. With Kashyap and Bhave as guides, the two actors found themselves moored to Mumbai during rehearsals—a ritual that is almost a tradition at the director’s residence. “They were both once new to the city and are a lot like their characters. Much (of the characterization) came from the actors themselves actually,” says the director. While remaining unrevealed in the film, Kashyap and Bhave outfitted both Sarita and Sushant with backstories to guide Kher and Mathew during the filmmaking process. “Sarita is somebody from the Konkan region who probably learned her music in Bangalore, Roshan is either from Bangalore or Chennai. We had little things like these in mind when putting the film together,” says the director.
For Kashyap, Sarita and Sushant’s relationship forms the focal point of Choked and he maintains that the film is ultimately a story about two people trying to find their way back to each other. “Sarita and Sushant’s love, like their marriage, is choked. But these are not people who are cheating on each other,” he says. The director dives into the dynamics of trust that exist between the spouses, wherein even the innumerable jibes, doubts and fallouts, bear no burden over their seasoned connection. “When Sushant is insecure about the clip involving Sarita and then sees the video, he knows exactly what’s going on. He doesn’t need to question his wife anymore because their love is based on something; it doesn’t matter what anybody says. So Choked is about a marriage, it’s about a relationship, it’s about so many things,” says Kashyap.
The director-writer duo also delicately juxtapose two smaller, parallel threads alongside that of Sarita and Sushant’s dwindling marriage in Choked; a dynamic between neighborhood women Sharvari taai (sister) and Neeta (Rajshri Deshpande) and a brief exploration of the furtive upstairs neighbor’s clandestine visits to the building. “There’s this subtlety between this married woman played by Rajshri Deshpande and Amrita Subhash. What is that relationship, we don’t know, because we are not peeping into these characters’ bedrooms. We (like most nosy neighbors) can only smell it from outside: is there something here, is there not? Is Sharvari unmarried, why is Neeta here? Why don’t we see Sharvari’s husband? Why don’t we see the upar wala (upstairs) neighbor—why is he this suspicious character? Those were the details we wanted to explore too while telling Sarita and Sushant’s story,” says Kashyap.
The key to changing times
Beyond the host of everyday characters, a motif that the director speaks of are the doors in Choked; the 39″ x 80″ wooden frames that go from ajar to shut over the course of the one-hour, 54-minute movie. “You know how when you know everybody in the building, you keep the doors open? We grew up in a time when everybody was comfortable. Hum log kahan darwaze par tala lagate the (our generation never locked the doors, did we)?” says Kashyap. The closed doors were a culmination of a variety of exchanges amongst the cast and crew on set, to mark a transition between an India before and an India after the debacle of demonetization. Kashyap also knocks on the wooden frames with an ironic lens, given how wealth and possession are viewed in a country notorious for its levels of administrative corruption. “Everybody’s doors are then locked, everybody has secrets to keep in. Suddenly, they have things they’re insecure about, things they don’t want people to know. They don’t want anyone peeping in,” says the director. “The times have changed and it all comes from there,” he adds.
Ironing out the kinks
While scouting locations for filming, production designer Ravi Srivastava studied and photographed real buildings which led the team to identify a tricky problem pretty early on: managing the drainage system. “You mess with the drainage system, you’ll collapse the way the building functions—you can’t do that. That’s when we decided to also shoot on a set,” reveals the director. Choked was initially filmed in a dilapidated building in Mumbai’s Khar neighborhood. The cast and crew shot on-location for six days, capturing the exterior portions of the building as well as the insides of the apartments. The structure went into renovation soon after. “Every house was not safe enough to shoot in. So, we filmed in the safest apartment and then recreated the entire interior of the house in the studio. Much of Choked is shot against a green screen—which is something viewers will never find out,” says the director.
Kashyap gives it all up to the crew behind Choked, particularly recounting how VFX co-producer Arpan Gaglani and cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca stitched the interior and exterior shots together. “I think we managed to do it in a way where it all seems real because in an old building like that, we cannot control the money coming out of the sink and all those things,” he says. The director outlines two scenes to solidify his point. One: wherein Sushant walks with the cops towards the building’s gutter—that was shot on-location. Two: wherein Sushant looks down from the terrace and gestures at the cops—that was shot on set. “The way the light matches is genius cinematography which, unfortunately, people might not be able to make out; it’s the difference between what is real and what’s achieved,” says the director. He adds, “This truly has been my most satisfying filmmaking experience in a very long time.”
The message is “this too shall pass”
Set during a time of destabilization, Choked also happens to have debuted during a period of uncertainty and the director hopes the movie kindles both laughter and thought. “At the end of the day, it’s a heartwarming film. Sometimes, it helps like a balm, like a soothing balm—nothing else. Sometimes, that’s enough,” he says. As viewers find Choked during the pandemic, Kashyap bids them to hold one thought close: “This too shall pass, we will come out stronger. That’s all one wants, nothing more,” he says.