Moralizing middle class and the Choked response to Demonetization

By Dyotana Banerjee and Noyonika Das 6 June 2020

(author names appear alphabetically)

Anurag Kashyap’s recent  movie ‘Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai’ is a tale of a mixed ethnic young couple in India’s financial city (upper caste and lower-middle class), whose lives and marriage revolve around the search for that extra money that can keep them debt-free and afloat. Sarita Sahasthrabudhdhe (a Chitpavan Bramhin surname) (Saiyami Kher) is a bank teller whose single income barely meets ends, and her husband Sushant Pillai (A Malayali seemingly babbling in Tamil) (Roshan Mathew) live in a close-knit Bombay neighbourhoods with their son. This couple is a symptomatic representation of a section of the middle class that navigates the urban life and economic-bureaucratic upheavals such as demonetization with both populist celebration and calibrated sarcasm. Sarita’s newly found sources of money that is coming to her kitchen through a clogged pipe from the floor above comes to a halt, as dramatically as it entered her life, when the five hundred and thousand rupee notes are rendered worthless overnight. Sushant, unemployed, and having nothing to lose, joins a neighbourhood celebration for the perceived end of ‘kaala dhan’ or black money in India.  Sarita and her neighbor Sharvaree (Amruta Subhash), a single mother trying to provide for her daughter’s wedding, stare blankly at the television screen struggling to process the extent of their loss as they stacked cash at home. 

The most convincing part is perhaps a restrained, yet sharp critique of the drastic economic move that comes from Sarita’s everyday life where she tells Sushanth that she does not have the time to gush over a political leader and his much-advertised life-stories; also, her snapping at a customer in bank and asking them to fold hands before the politicians they voted for. Sarita’s and Sharvaree’s lives and actions are a robust reflection of women’s everyday negotiation and small jugaad amidst financial crises when the men in their lives are either absent or of no help. ‘Choked’, the title, is also a metaphorical reference to Sarita’s most cherished dream of being a singer which turned into a traumatic nightmare when her voice choked during her performance in a reality show. It ties up well with the portrayal of struggling middle class lives as stunted and banal in the face of everyday hardships.

Sushant’s character is an extension of Kashyap’s favourite trope, that is, the masculine anxieties of the urban Indian young men vis-à-vis more assertive and independent women. Ugly and Raman Raghav 2.0 showed similar blends of discomfort and nonchalance in intimate relationships over inculcated gendered insecurities in male protagonists. Moreover, Sushant’s sense of inadequacy as a non-significant partner seems to find comfort in invoking moral challenges to his wife by asking how she had access to extra money. Despite having the potential to lay bare the extent of devastation that followed in post demonetization India, especially upon the working class and a vast section of the economy that runs on cash and non-digital transactions, ‘Choked’ leaned on the relatively safe and cliched trope of middle class lives getting entangled in an illegitimate flow of cash from a political contact’s flat above. Demonetization is merely used as a prop without which the movie would have perhaps landed as a run-of-the-mill neighbourhood money-heist. 

Kashyap has stated that he took great care to ensure that ‘Choked’ remained untainted with his political views or take on demonetisation. While that may have been an artistic choice he is at liberty to make, the film fails to escape from the  larger rhetoric relentlessly pushed at the time of demonetisation: that of the moral upstanding middle class citizen.. The populist rhetoric of demonetization heralding the much talked about acche din is succinctly captured by Sushant’s carrom buddies who count themselves blessed to be witnessing landmark developments in the regime of a visionary leader. What is interesting is that they make these comments while watching a news broadcast recounting the hardships faced by the much lauded scheme. The scene then shifts but the voice of the news anchor can still be heard emanating but this time talking of the foiled plans of miscreants whose actions are fuelled by black money. This imagery highlights the narrative of the ordinary middle class citizen who must respond to the clarion call of the leader and endure temporary hardship for the salvation of the nation from the moral evil of corruption. While Kashyap seems to subtly critique this simplistic duality of good versus evil he does not break away from it.

The concluding minutes of the movie depicts Sarita bereft of her windfall and grief stricken over her many losses and failures. Nevertheless the final few seconds take a turn to reveal Sarita emerging as a winner but in the ‘right’ way. A letter reveals her being recipient of a monetary reward bestowed to her for helping trace tax officials to an MLA’s stash of dirty money. Hence it was not the money expelled alongside sewage from a clogged up drain which brought her happiness but money earned by doing a good deed.

Kashyap paints an authentic picture of the struggling Indian middle class but against a moral backdrop. While he admits to the fact that ‘paisa bolta hai’ and illustrates how deeply enmeshed aspirations and money have become, he remains naive in his approach. The fact that material greed is a human trait but true salvation lies outside the realm of riches seems idealistic and utopian. This is evidenced by a rejuvenated Sarita in the final scene as well as a less animosity filled relationship with her husband. A reconciliation with a life of strained means which earlier appeared to be a cause of great discontentment seems like an awareness very few attain.

Bionotes:

Dyotana Banerjee is an adjunct faculty at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. She holds a PhD in Politics and her research focuses on caste-based spatial segregation and Dalit politics in Ahmedabad. She can be reached at dyotanab@gmail.com

Noyonika Das is a postgraduate researcher in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar. Her research looks at the politics of assisted reproduction and the stigmatized condition of infertility among lower income households. She can be reached at noyonikadas16@gmail.com

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