Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai, Anurag Kashyap’s latest directorial venture, released on Netflix on the 5th of June. Choked presents itself as a middle-class demonetisation drama, but through its protagonists offers a gendered perspective on the politics of the home and the world.
Sarita (Saiyami Kher), a cashier at a government bank, is the only earning member of a family of three. Her husband, Sushant (Roshan Mathew), is presented as a jobless wastrel who spends his days playing carrom with his friends and shirking away from household responsibilities. Sarita’s life takes a turn when her clogged up kitchen sink drain begins to spew out wads of cash every night, stashed in the drain by an upstairs neighbour.
The Gendered Harms Of Demonetisation
As Sarita, Sushant, and a neighbour Sharvari Tai, watch Modi’s speech announcing demonetisation, Sushant grins and says, “Now all the black money will be flushed out. What a great leader!” The two women on the other hand, stare in horror, already worrying about the ground practicalities of their daily lives.
Sharvari Tai, a single mother making arrangements for her daughter’s wedding, finds that her life savings are now worthless, and her daughter’s wedding may be cancelled because she won’t be able to pay for it.
A 2015 report by the UNDP revealed that over 80% of women in India do not have bank accounts or access to banking infrastructure. Women have traditionally been particularly disadvantaged in terms of financial inclusion.
Patriarchy dictates that men should handle the household money as women cannot. This leads to families not including women in financial matters or bothering to ensure their education in financial literacy, which in turn leads to women not being comfortable handling finances – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Women in low income communities, who are the sole breadwinners of their family too, end up having their earnings taken away by their husbands.
The result is that women have always hoarded cash to save up money for themselves and their children, or hidden it away from abusive husbands.
Demonetisation, however, tore apart this safety net. It either made their money worthless or forced them to expose it.
Money And Power Can Be Abused By Anyone, Irrespective of Gender
Choked starts off as any other troubled marriage story, filled with financial woes and long-suppressed tensions. The film begins to focus its lens on the woman when unexpected cash begins to fall into her hands – or more precisely onto her kitchen floor from the drain. There is a clear power shift, and the film well and truly becomes Sarita’s story.
Sarita’s eyes are vacant for most of the film’s first half. Even her constant jabs at her husband lack any emotion. When she opens the packets her drain vomits out, and finds bundles of money in them, is the first time her eyes light up with a mixture of joy and greed. She smiles, spares a grateful glance at a shrine of Lord Ganesh, and begins to count the notes even as her eyes wander around the room with its broken furniture and peeling walls – already planning and envisioning what she will do with the money.
The film’s colour palette and filter are almost always green – green for money, green for the sewage water the money is fished out of, and green with envy and greed.
The money clearly changes Sarita. She comes into herself, speaks her mind freely, buys new items for her house and gifts for neighbours, and is assertive with Sushant. However, she doesn’t seem to actually grow happier. She’s awake through the night waiting for the drain to magically bring her more money, and grows more callous towards her son and friends. Her fights with her husband become a chore she wants to get out of the way, instead of real communication to fix their relationship.
Sarita was always the breadwinner in the family, but it is only when the excess cash begins to flow into her hands that she becomes aware of it, and makes her husband feel aware of it too. Sushant’s friends tease him for being “the wife in the marriage”, and as she gets more money in her hands, Sarita begins to demean him for being the “wife”, as well.
The very term “breadwinner” implies that there is a loser, and Sarita ensures Sushant knows he is the one losing in the relationship.
The power – and the potential to misuse it – that money brings, are not gendered.
Stories Reflect And Impact Society – Call Yourself Out For Consuming Them With A Bias
Being a long-time fan of Roshan Mathew, I admittedly found myself letting my subjective biases cloud the way I watched the film – something Indian audiences with their chronic celebrity worship have long been guilty of.
Even when I acknowledged Sushant’s flaws, I would get unjustifiably annoyed at Sarita for constantly sniping at him – for refusing to actually listen when he tried to have a conversation, for responding to his every question with a mean jab.
Viewed objectively, however, the film exposes a relationship where a woman earns her position of power, and the man scrambles to rescue his ego while not doing anything to earn it.
Sarita took a government job and gave up her dream of becoming a singer, so that Sushant could stay at home and pursue his dream of composing songs. Sushant however doesn’t work, neglects taking care of their son, and refuses to do any of the housework. Sarita’s resentment has years of justified foundations.
Even when Sushant finally picks up a rag Sarita throws at him to clean the kitchen, he stares at it, considers swiping the counter, but then tosses it aside and walks away. It’s clear that he believes that despite having the time and energy, and Sarita drowning in work, parental and household chores are not the husband’s responsibility.
Gendered injustices reflected in stories expose injustices we face in our everyday lives, but either ignore or are unconscious to.
Stories hold the power to impact millions – biases hold the power to ensure that the impact doesn’t result in any actual change.
We need to normalise calling ourselves out for allowing biases and previous problematic conditionings to hamper new learnings and what we take away from stories. Only then can we ensure that our individual and societal growth doesn’t get choked.
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