Directed by the internationally acclaimed Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, Choked (2020) is a film that dwells deep into the personal lives of troubled characters amidst the backdrop of the “note ban,” also known as demonetization, a watershed moment in the history of India. In a world where one has to struggle every inch of their existence, the filmmaker is careful to keep the opposing forces of the society keenly balanced, and the audience is invited to decide for themselves the precise meaning of survival in the financial capital of the country. Choked is deftly detailed, focusing on the vagaries of daily life in a middle-class family, with such authenticity that it gives the film its flavor and transcends beyond its generic limits as a tale about aspiration, materialism, envy, greed and the idea of having a monetarily secured life. I recently spoke with Choked’s screenwriter, Nihit Bhave.
Dipankar Sarkar: Share your journey from a film journalist to a screenwriter.
Nihit Bhave: While working for the Times of India from 2009 to 2012, I wrote for their TV channel, Zoom, and their entertainment supplement, Bombay Times. I would often help out in the research for long-format interviews and later was assigned interviews myself. Diving into an actor’s or a filmmaker’s past, their journey, their craft and making a list of questions for them made the job worthwhile. I started gravitating towards the stories of the artists and learning more about how the industry functioned. Because of my work as a journalist, I’d cultivated a few contacts. In 2012, I realized that writing was my calling and took a sabbatical to write Choked. But once the script was ready and the pitching process started, I realized that it would be long before the film found a home. So, I went back and forth between screenwriting jobs, freelance journalism and movie criticism. Every now and then, I feel like there’s a feature article or a film piece in me that needs to get written, just as urgently as a screenplay.
DS: Did writing episodes for a web series help you excel in your craft of screenwriting?
NB: Being a part of the writers’ room for Sacred Games season 2 has been the most enriching and educational experience of my (admittedly short) career thus far. I was also Anurag Kashyap’s script supervisor in the first season of the show, so I had a good idea of the world and the characters. But writing for season 2 was like a crash course in structure, research, plotting, dialogue writing and character study. Varun Grover, who led the room, gave us a lot of liberties to be ourselves and bring our individual strengths to the table. When you write alone, you don’t have the benefit of instant feedback from people who are equally invested. On season 2, we would chalk out our work for the week, then work in pairs or as a group, review and edit each other’s writing, and have a lot of freewheeling chats. Being in that room taught me how to accept constructive criticism and, most importantly, taught me how to listen.
DS: You had adapted two episodes from Vikram Chandra’s novel for two episodes of Sacred Games season 2. What was the process?
NB: Season 1 of Sacred Games stuck closer to the book than season 2. The climax and the cliffhanger of season 1 had left us with an open playing field and we felt like updating the conflicts in the book to fit today’s socio-political issues was a much required detour. We worked for a couple of months on the story arcs for the season. Then we split off into pairs and worked on the two protagonists, Gaitonde and Sartaj separately. We would have show-and-tells at the end of the week, where people working on Gaitonde and Sartaj would exchange their materials and work on each other’s documents. A similar process was followed for other characters as well. Eventually when we were happy with episodic outlines, we were assigned episodes at random, and we got cracking!
DS: How did the idea of writing a screenplay about a family under economic duress with demonetization occur to you?
NB: I was in the physical setting of the film — a Mumbai local train — when the idea took a shape in my head. My office was a 45-minute train ride from my home, and I would commute every day for three years. The train compartment used to be full of people from lower-income groups, and I would pass time imagining their lives, after they stepped off the train. I had seen a lot of films and shows about the emotional toll that a marriage takes on people, but I was drawn to the idea of writing a story where practical things like money weighed a marriage down. I wanted money to be “the other man/woman,” the third wheel. I had found my story, my setting and my characters… and then, on another casual train ride, I thought of the kitchen sink clogged by bundles of illegal cash. Demonetization stumbled into the plot after it was announced, because I possibly couldn’t dodge it while writing a story about a bank cashier with money troubles. I don’t look at Choked as a film about demonetization; it’s a film about marriage with the backdrop of demonetization.
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DS: In one of the scenes, Sarita — under the stress of excess work — replies to an old lady discourteously, “Bank doles out cash, not sympathy.” Is the scene a critique on the governments’ decision to put a check on black money, which was circulating in the economy?
NB: Sarita is a conduit for the common man. So, her frustrations are ours, and her outrage is ours too. That specific line of dialogue was more a reaction, than a statement. Sometimes, the people in charge do things that make the best of us crack, and in that moment, Sarita cracks too. While it seems discourteous, I feel like she has been through enough for her anger to be justified.
DS: The money erupting out of the blocked drainpipe looks like a metaphor that explains the title/theme of the film. Is it so?
NB: The title and the theme are inseparable; it was a very conscious effort to make Sarita feel choked in the marriage, and giving her a release in the form of a choked kitchen sink. The sink had to be a key player; it empowers Sarita more than her husband does, it is an inanimate object that triggers the most human emotions of greed and jealousy. A clogged sink is not only a thoroughly relatable problem in lower middle class life, but it also gave the film the quirk it needed. Anurag tells me that he was sold on this longline alone: “A cash strapped bank cashier finds unlimited cash coming through her broken kitchen sink.”
DS: What was the purpose behind introducing the ironic song celebrating demonetization?
NB: This is completely Anurag Kashyap’s vision. He knew that we needed to energize the demonetization montage with an ironic song that encapsulated the vibe of the time. Most people (even those who later criticized the move) were celebrating demonetization and were full of praise for our leader. Anurag heard this song composed by Nucleya and knew that it was perfect.
DS: Sarita maintains an even balance between her family and professional life, which at times appears to be mechanical. Could you shed some light on her character and the research that went behind in fleshing out her as a bank employee?
NB: The research into the daily rhythms of a bank job was fairly easy. I spoke with a lot of bank employees, and made sure I got the activities right. Like any dead-end job, it’s a cyclical routine — more of the same, every day. The interesting part was exploring the idea of bank cashiers handling bundles and bundles of money, and going back to their meager means at the end of the day. The irony of that situation was what sparked the idea of Choked in the first place. So, it was interesting to have Sarita count 50,000 rupees, and in the next scene, haggle with a vegetable vendor over 50 rupees. I know at least seven versions of Sarita in my life — women who maintain a work-life balance with little to no help from their spouses. It was important for me to portray her as someone whose default is sarcasm and anger, but it is born out of her circumstance.
DS: Sushant is depicted as a laid back, lazy individual in most of the sequences. But the moment he discovers that a clandestine video of his wife is circulating amongst his neighbor, he becomes an active and caring husband instead of violently confronting his wife. Is he an insecure individual?
NB: He’s as insecure as Sarita, but in a different way. It would have been stereotypical to have Sushant confront her about the video and expose his prejudices. I found it easier to write a man whose insecurity leads to vulnerability and not anger. The more she distances herself from him, the more willing he becomes to bridge the gap, in his limited ways.
DS: In most of our films, whenever there is a discord between a married couples, the child involuntary becomes a victim of their conflicts. But Sameer seems to have negotiated his position within the chaos shrouding the family. Whether he has to play the role of a communicator between his parents or forcefully awaken in the middle of the night as a witness, he is never objectified as a child trapped in his parent’s quarrel. What is your outlook regarding Sameer’s characterization?
NB: Sameer had to be the referee between his parents. It’s always good to see films about adults and their issues where children get to be their own people and aren’t just used as props. And in my opinion, children who come from broken marriages assume the role of arbitrators pretty early on. I’ve known people who have matured much ahead of time and assumed responsibilities. I needed a part of the film to show that premature wisdom or cunning. It also made for a good foil to Sushant.
DS: What was the reason behind the dream sequence, where Sarita’s arm gets stuck into the drainpipe and Sushant laughs at her without budging an inch to help her?
NB: This scene wasn’t in the original screenplay, it was added later by Anurag. In that scene, he says so much without saying a line of dialogue. It tells you how deep she has dug herself into the grave; it shows her greed and his indifference, and the state of their relationship, all together.
DS: Midway into the film, the exposition regarding Sarita’s failed attempt to perform at the reality show in Bengaluru appears as a set-up highlighting a weak trait in the protagonist. But there is no pay-off in terms of overcoming her weakness of performance pressure, as it it happens in a conventional narrative. Why did you opt for such a treatment?
NB: Sarita has left that part of her life behind, and she may or may not go back to it. For me, the conflict wasn’t her failed singing career; it was her dwindling marriage, which is what we focused on. Closing that arc with her going back to her passion would have been contrived, because it isn’t, by far, the focus of the film. It’s just one more thing that has gotten her down. Anurag added the almost fantastical sequence of her singing the whole song with a smile on her face, as a way to close that loop.
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DS: The moment Sarita realizes that one of the bank robbers has discovered her bag with the bundles of money, she steps forward and gets hit on her forehead. The film then cuts to a black screen followed by her song performance, and then cuts back to the reality where she is crying profusely. What was your motivation behind such transition of scenes?
NB: We needed to see Sarita at her happiest in the other-wordly sequence of the song, and then immediately at her lowest, back in reality. I think that transition is one of my favourite things that Anurag and editor Konark Saxena have achieved. It wasn’t written that way. So, it gave me goosebumps the first time. I think it was Anurag’s way of seeing our protagonist at her best, before we saw her at her worst, having lost it all. The loss is amplified by seeing her on a stage, winning over everyone; it makes you truly see what could have been.
DS: Towards the climax of the film, it’s revealed that Sushant and his neighbors were taking advantage of Rajendra’s black money kept within the residential premise. Could you please explain the purpose behind the sequence? Moreover, there is no resolution to what had happened with Sharvari Tai and her three partners in crime-Neeta, Dinesh, and Anju?
NB: In the kind of housing society that the film is set in, people are often as outwardly generous as they’re inwardly cunning. Everyone knowing about the money but not sharing it with each other was just a way of reflecting on the setting, the people that make up the film. We also wanted to say that the very thing that corrupts the system benefits everyone at a different level. So, Rajendra has a big stash. Sharvari, the most proactive of the lot, finds a way to loot it. Dinesh, the slick man, has perhaps found it in his sink and kept quiet about it. For Sarita, it is a blessing, so she solves her debt issues and start buying flashy things because she isn’t sly enough to hide it well. And Sushant — the laziest, laid back one — gets a solitary bundle in the ground drainage, after it’s been through the whole system. The money they all get is directly proportional to their own characters and personalities. I also never feel the urge to tie up every single loose end neatly; this is something I have picked up while working with Anurag. So Sharvari, Neeta, Dinesh and Anju got their share before the raids —– what they’re doing with the money? Your guess is as good as mine!
DS: As the film closes to an end, the letter from the income tax department comes with a ray of hope. So, as a writer, is this the kind of award you wanted to distribute to your distressed characters for undergoing all the hardships in the film? And why isn’t the amount of money disclosed to the viewers?
NB: The amount isn’t disclosed for the simple reason that no amount would be enough. Sarita and Sushant aren’t going to be completely content about money anytime soon. So, putting a number at the end felt unnecessary. It is also another example of us not tying up every little loose end. Some things are better left to imagination. As for the reward: that is an income tax department custom in the country. When someone helps nab a huge amount of black money, they’re rewarded a certain percentage of it. And it fit right in with the climax of our film, so we decided to include it.
Choked is available on Netflix.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.