Choked is not a dark thriller or a political commentary on demonetisation: Anurag Kashyap
A middle-class struggling mother and wife sees her life turn around one night when her kitchen sink starts throwing up wads of cash. It happens every night thereon, but one day, demonetisation strikes and she’s left with piles of useless notes. That’s the intriguing premise of Anurag Kashyap’s film Choked that drops on Netflix on Friday. Frontlined by Saiyami Kher, who embraces the part of Sarita like second skin, Choked has many layers, as it explores an unravelling marriage and the relatable hopes and aspirations of the middle class. The film also stars Roshan Mathew, who made waves last year with his stellar act in the bilingual film Moothon.
Ahead of the film’s release, we caught up on a video call with Anurag, Saiyami and Roshan on the world of their film and what went into making it.
The trailer of Choked has piqued curiosity. Is there a predominant reaction?
Anurag Kashyap: I think people will be a little disappointed (when they watch Choked), simply because they expect me to pour my politics into the film (laughs). I’ve been hearing things like, ‘Finally, you haven’t been able to hold back and you’ve made a film about demonetisation’. Which the film is not about. It’s just a commentary on demonetisation and the film is built around it. Choked is essentially about a marriage, about aspirations, about lower-middle-class people…. This is not a dark thriller or a political commentary on demonetisation, or my point of view on it. Some people have watched the film and they were very surprised that it was nothing of what they had expected from me. That it’s a film that makes you happy at the end and that it sticks to the politics of the characters, none of whom sound like Anurag Kashyap!
Roshan Mathew: I have generally got very positive reactions for the trailer, which has been very exciting. What I’ve heard the most is that the world that it’s set in and the people in it seem interesting and believable. Which is great, because as AK (Anurag Kashyap) was saying, the film is essentially the story of these two people (Sarita, played by Saiyami and Sushant, played by Roshan) and the marriage that they are in. Everything else that happens is just an interesting context to tell their story.
Saiyami Kher: The reactions that I have got are pretty overwhelming. The people who are honest with me and generally never quite like what I do, have liked the trailer and that’s a big win for me (laughs). But like AK was saying, when you have a slate that says, ‘From the maker of Gangs of Wasseypur, Dev.D and Sacred Games’, a lot of my friends were like, ‘Oh, this slate and demonetisation… we are sold’. So I had to explain to them that it’s not a quintessential Anurag Kashyap film because he’s not doing any political bashing, there’s no murder (laughs)…. It’s a relationship of these two characters that he’s followed. As an actor, many people have told me that they couldn’t recognise me, which is also a positive for me.
As Roshan pointed out, the world of the film is very real and believable. Was authenticity the key to cracking this story?
Anurag: For me, any film has to be authentic in its milieu. When I made Manmarziyaan and I hadn’t seen Amritsar before, I had Kanika Dhillon (the film’s writer) who is from Amritsar with me… she helped me bring Amritsar into the film. Similarly, in Choked, our main agenda was to make the film real and relatable, especially for people who come from that class and are Maharashtrian. For that, you need to have the right people around you. It began with the script. Nihit Bhave (the film’s writer) is a middle-class Maharashtrian… I am from the middle class, my father was an engineer. I interpreted my life experiences and put them into the humanity of the characters.
But all the other aspects of authenticity came from having the right people on board. Like Sylvester Fonseca whose call it was to make the set with those colour schemes, Ravi Shrivastav who made the sets, Rahul Badwelkar, who is my second-unit director… all these people essentially who have grown up here, they were all my bouncing boards. Roshan is a Malayali who now lives in Bombay… so he drew from his experiences. Saiyami would correct me (smiles). I appear like I don’t listen, but I do listen (laughs). I will shoot it my way but I also know when I need to step out and watch the world I am shooting. In this case, I entered the world that was created for me. That happened a lot with the casting… by casting Maharashtrians as Maharashtrians, you know. We went as far as creating a Marathi song for the bachelorette party that happens in a Maharashtrian household.
For the three of you, what were the biggest highs and the biggest challenges of making this film?
Roshan: I waited a year, but Anurag Sir and Saiyami have waited for much longer to get this film made.
Anurag: I didn’t wait… Saiyami waited! (Laughs)
Roshan: Saiyami waited for about three years. I always felt like I got the easiest part of the deal because when I came in, Saiyami and Nihit were already on board, they were already doing everything that they could to make this happen at the earliest. Anurag Sir told me, ‘I will shoot this next year’ and I took his word for it. I came to Bombay and had a meeting with him and it was all okay. And then I had my first meeting with Saiyami and Nihit, and then there was anxiety all around… ‘Listen if we don’t do everything in our power to make this happen, it will not happen and we need to join forces to make this happen’ (everyone laughs). So suddenly there was a WhatsApp group being made and all these plans to speak to Anurag Sir….
Anurag: They put so much pressure on me. They made me feel so guilty that I ended up saying, ‘Okay, now it’s time to make Choked’.
Roshan:These guys give me a lot of credit for being the last piece of the puzzle that fit in. But honestly, it was the easiest deal for me. Everyone’s been asking me how it’s been to suddenly go into Bollywood and make a film in a different industry and I actually felt very comfortable. I think it has a lot to do with Anurag Sir’s way of working and the environment that he operates in, which is quite close to that of a few film-makers that I have worked with in the Malayalam film industry. So I wasn’t fully on unfamiliar territory.
Saiyami: Roshan was our final lucky charm that came in. Things started moving a little smoothly after that. Hats off to Nihit who wrote this in 2013, and he’s had the longest wait. I bumped into AK at MAMI ( Mumbai Fim Festival)… I was watching one of the last films and I was very tired and he said, ‘Do you want to do a film?’ He sent me the script and I came on board.
The film feels so authentic because Nihit wrote this story when he was travelling in a local train. He’s very rooted to what happens in Sarita and Sushant’s life… he’s not someone who was sitting in Olive (a Mumbai eatery) and thinking of what a struggling Maharashtrian household is experiencing. I have grown up in a Maharashtrian household, so there were a lot of things I connected to immediately. We had a dedicated costume team that worked very hard.
Everything fell into place, except that three-year wait that we had to go through. I was on the sets of Lust Stories (a segment of which was directed by Kashyap). I wasn’t assisting, but I was on the sets from 9am to 6pm, hovering around AK to say, ‘I exist… you said you would make a film with me’ (laughs). Then, I went to the sets of both seasons of Sacred Games…. I was just like this pest who was all around him until he actually made the film! (Everyone laughs).
The best part about this film was — and I will take the liberty of saying it — that it almost felt like family. Roshan and I were living in AK’s house. Roshan was having the expensive whiskys from Anurag’s cupboard, I was having the expensive chocolates from his fridge (everyone laughs)... which AK didn’t know about! It just felt like family because after shoot, we would come back to his home. And I just felt it got over too soon. We chased the project for three years and this man just finished shooting in 23 days! That’s the only regret…
I wish we had shot a little more.
Anurag, you’ve said that Choked has been your most ‘personal journey’. Why do you say that? And you really can’t deny the politics that’s there in the film…
Anurag: Yes, there’s politics in the film. But it’s done so carefully that, as I said, none of these characters should sound like Anurag Kashyap. So, there’s an Anurag Kashyap on Twitter, there’s one off Twitter and then there is another person who makes films. My politics is definitely there but every character in the film is a kind of conscience-keeper. I would write in everything and Nihit would chuck it out and Saiyami would fight with me saying, ‘Sarita can’t talk like you!’ (Laughs) Also, we designed Sushant, who is unemployed, in such a way that his resentment against the system is the cause of his euphoria. He only hears stories and he’s fascinated by them… he suddenly becomes aware of the prime minister and he wants to narrate those stories to Sarita who is too tired to care. In this film, every character’s story of survival determines his politics. We wanted to stick to that… what their life is… and that’s what decides their politics, their involvement in it and their opinion of it.
These characters are not privileged like me, which is also my struggle in this film and in every film… that I need to believe in this world. If I put my politics into a film, it becomes propaganda. If I have to take a stand, I have other platforms to do so. In my head, a film-maker has to be a chronicler. When I make a film, I have to chronicle the place and the times it’s in, so that it stays relevant even in the future. I strongly believe that to fight propaganda, you can’t become a propagandist yourself. This is my biggest struggle. And it’s all internal, because of which I am a different person when I am on set, I am another person during the shoot when I am off set — I am very quiet, going through my mistakes, I sit in the edit room and have a quiet drink — and when the shoot is over, I am a different person. So there are multiple mes (laughs).
Saiyami and Roshan, do Sarita and Sushant resonate with you in any way?
Saiyami: When I read the script, there was definitely a lot I connected to, but not in terms of being a mother or a homemaker. But just in terms of how Sarita is intrinsically, there was a lot that I connected to….
Anurag: That’s incorrect. Sayami is actually a mother to a lot of people (laughs). She mothers everybody. She keeps telling me not to smoke and drink. She’s happiest when she sees am not doing any of the two.
Saiyami: Yes, in that aspect I am a mother (laughs). Honestly, I am extremely bad with kids. I hope that doesn’t come through in the film. Physically, to play Sarita I had put on almost 10-12 kg… wearing a sari I wasn’t comfortable in at all because I practically live in shorts….
Did the weight gain happen courtesy the chocolates in Anurag’s fridge?
Anurag: (Laughs) No, she did it before the film. She’s like an athlete… she’s going for Ironman (laughs). Look at her… she’s lost all that weight!
Saiyami: The chocolates, of course, helped. I got comfortable being Sarita within the first two days. But when it comes to struggle, I feel everyone has gone through their own struggle… I had to connect with the struggles I have faced in life and play them out in character with Sarita.
Roshan: Sushant is an exciting character. I would have taken anything that AK would have offered and I am glad I liked Sushant. I always look to play people who are dissimilar from the ones I have played in the recent past. I’ve never played a father or a married man, which Sushant is, and that’s something fresh. Sushant is someone who has given up… I haven’t yet, fortunately (smiles). He’s given into his insecurities, I am someone who is fighting his insecurities. He finds inspiration later in the film, though. There are obviously points in a character, no matter how dark or dissimilar, that we will find a common thread with and build on, and that also happened with Sushant and me. There are a good bunch of insecurities that I carry, I have been jealous in life, as Sushant is in the movie. It’s always a bit of this and that.
Anurag: In real life, he’s more like Reddy! (The goon in the film)
Roshan: What nonsense! No!
Saiyami: We are always telling Roshan, ‘Try and become a bit of a bad boy, please!’ He’s such a sweet, nice boy….
Anurag: He is a bad boy! He’s a secret bad boy…
Roshan: AK, for some reason, has always believed that I am a bad boy! When you live with a person like I have with AK, then I guess you get to see all sides of him.
The tag line of your film is ‘Paisa bolta hai’. How far do you think that’s true, especially in this country, and in your own life experiences?
Anurag: The reason I hate money so much is that we need it. We talk about being independent, but we are so dependent on money that it doesn’t allow us to be independent. Money dictates everything. The reason why film-making is an art form that unfortunately costs so much money is why in Indian cinema, there are no working-class heroes. People don’t want to see those films, and the same goes for films on marginalised people. Everybody wants to see happy, colourful films. I have a terrible relationship with money because I hate money. But I need money because my whisky is expensive (everyone laughs).
Saiyami: As an actor, I feel that paisa hi bolta hai kyunki agar Mirzya (Saiyami’s debut film directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and co-starring Harshvardhan Kapoor) ne paise kamaaye hote then I would have made a lot more films by now (smiles).
Roshan: I have somehow managed to distance myself from that side of the business till now. The whole angle of a market value….
Anurag: You won’t be able to stay away from it. You want to stay artistic and do meaningful stuff, but that doesn’t find money. So you end up saying, ‘Okay I will do this stuff, so that I can also do meaningful stuff’. And slowly, you start losing that balance.
Roshan: I’ve stayed insulated so far, but I see how one’s self-worth is judged by the money that we can bring in. I was talking to a film-maker who said that there was a great story for a film and when I said I wanted to be a part of it, the film-maker said, ‘This is a big-budget film. Go become a star and come back. I give you one year (smiles)’. That is something I will eventually have to think about but right now I am not.