As worn-out as the found-money wish fulfillment fantasy plot is, it still makes a useful framework to build morality tales, parables and social commentary on.
That’s what the Indian melodrama “Choked (Paisa Bolta Hai)” does. A troubled marriage, dashed dreams, money troubles and voila — cash just pops out of the family’s perpetually-stopped drain pipe.
The source of that money, the corrupting power of it and the way class conflict is played by Indian politicians — specifically Indian Prime Minister Nerandra Modi — all work their way into this slow and uneven if occasionally suspenseful and even amusing potboiler.
The bloom has gone off the rose in Sarita (Saiyami Kher) and Sushant’s (Roshan Mathew) marriage. He hasn’t worked regularly in years. He goofs off with the neighbors, picks at his guitar and doesn’t bother cooking or cleaning up in the tattered but roomy flat they raise their son in.
She’s a Mumbai bank teller struggling to keep them afloat, even as he adds debts to their burden. The teasing from his mates — “Sarita wears the pants in his house” (in Hindi with English subtitles) seems a small price to pay for being such a dead weight.
He even has the nerve to complain about her meals. So many potatoes!
“Potatoes for a couch potato!”
Things get so bad they shout at each other through their kid, ordering him to relay their angry arguments to each other.
Something happened between them, before their boy was born, a reality TV talent show where Sarita’s stage fright cost them their shot. Sushant never really got over it.
And then the noisy, ever-clogged pipes wake Sarita up in the middle of the night. She investigates, and plastic-covered rolls of cash fall out. This isn’t a Bollywood musical, a couple of songs and dance numbers notwithstanding. The cash didn’t magically appear as an answer to a prayer. We’ve seen strange men lugging suitcases to the apartment upstairs. Something’s going on.
Sarita keeps this discovery from Sushant, even as she tries to keep his meanest creditor at bay.
She’s sneaking around, fretting about being followed, slow to gain the confidence that makes her do what such fantasies dictate that she do — start spending. Nightmares, complications, threats and marital suspicions follow. Because Sushant is NOT the sort of fellow you can trust with this kind of news.
Then comes the ultimate complication. It’s 2016, and the prime minister has decreed that all 500 and 1000 rupee notes in circulation will be demonetized. There’s a run on banks, including Sarita’s, as everybody tries to swap the notes that are about to become useless.
Sushant, his pals and neighbors, dance and taunt those better off than them, lining up around the block in a panicked attempt to get new money before the sudden deadline.
“Corruption,” Modi says on the TV. “Counterfeit bills” and underground economy cash will be purged from circulation. But that money doesn’t just fund criminals and terrorists. And Sarita has all these bills to swap, right under the noses of her banking colleagues.
Director Anurag Kashyap of “Bombay Talkies” takes his sweet time (by Western standards, anyway) getting us into the story and escorting us to the finish. Gossiping neighbors, melodramatic mourning over a wedding that may not happen thanks to the currency exchange, hard feelings over Sushant’s business partnership gone bust and the added pressure of a shifty hotelier (Everybody is corrupt.) are what motivate Sarita’s nightmares.
And most of these plot decorations slow the movie down. A couple of scenes, including the finale, have an excruciating “For the love of God would get ON with it” quality.
But the journeys the characters take, their arcs, lift “Choked,” adding heart and a surprise twist or two.
Kher lets us see the wheels turn as Sarita does the calculus of what she wants to do, what she can do and what she might be forced to do. It makes more and more her sarcastic at home — she runs this house and drives this movie — and snappish at work. Little old ladies begging to change more money than allowed don’t move her newly hardened heart.
“Banks dole out cash, not sympathy.”
Mathew makes an agreeable heel.
And the whole is a more revealing slice of real Indian working lower middle class life than the confections served up by Netflix India typically manage.
“Choked” is not a very good film, but it’s a perfectly watchable and engrossing peek into a culture, its classes and its politics — governmental and sexual.
Cast: Saiyami Kher, Roshan Mathew, Amruta Subhash, Uday Nene
Credits: Directed by Anurag Kashyap, script by Nihit Bhave. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:53