Choked, the title of Anurag Kashyap’s new film, works on two levels. It is both the state of a drainage pipe in a residential building that becomes the source of unexpected wealth, and it is also the momentary condition that comes over the film’s protagonist at a crucial point in her promising career that derails the rest of her life.

Kashyap has called “Choked” the warmest film he’s made yet, and while it may be a stretch to use the word ‘warm’ to describe a movie about the corrupting power of ill-gotten money, it may well be among his least cynical films.

Not that you can tell straight away. Sarita (Saiyami Kher) is a middle-class Maharashtrian woman stuck in a joyless job as a cashier at a local bank, who returns home everyday to an unemployed husband, a young son, and a houseful of chores. She’s at her wit’s end with Sushant (Roshan Mathew), who was a struggling musician once; now he can’t hold a job, he just bums around doing nothing. On top of that his creditors won’t stop calling her.

Kashyap stages their domestic disharmony in a modest rented flat within the sort of suburban housing society that is a microcosm of Mumbai. Neighbors walk in and out of each other’s homes seeking help for all manner of struggles, to exchange gossip about other residents, or simply to check what’s cooking. Amruta Subhash is terrific as ‘Tai’, a nosy divorcee in the flat downstairs overwhelmed by all the arrangements for her daughter’s wedding. This is an authentic world, and Kashyap populates it with characters one can recognize and creates scenarios that feel familiar. In one crackling scene, Sarita and Sushant, laying in bed at night, their son asleep between them, break into an argument but in whispers. Within moments it escalates into a high-decibel exchange, both parents badgering the child to take their side.

But Kashyap isn’t making his version of “Marriage Story”. Or maybe he is…but with a twist. When Sarita discovers bundles of cash thrown up by a leaking drain in the kitchen one night, it becomes a test of her character, and it tests her marriage. Should she tell Sushant? Should she clear his debts with the money? Should she look for more where that came from? Should she find out who the money belongs to?

The script, by Nihit Bhave, packs some winning moments. Like Sarita thinking on her feet to protect her kitchen and the secret it holds when Tai’s wedding guests must be accommodated in her home. The makers throw a curveball in the form of 2016’s Demonetization and the phasing out of existing currency notes. From here the film takes the shape of a suspense thriller, but it also becomes convoluted and frequently confusing.

It’s clear that Kashyap and Bhave are interested in exploring the ethical and moral questions around keeping what doesn’t belong to you, and the greed that it breeds. But it leads to a weak third act that the film never fully recovers from despite the unpredictable ending. Also flashbacks to the moment from the past that she blames for her sad and ordinary life are repetitive and loosen the grip of an otherwise compelling story.

‘Choked’ has an intriguing premise at its heart but in raising the stakes the makers burden an intimate story of a strained marriage with a load it can’t carry. Saiyami Kher transforms convincingly into the caustic, impatient Sarita, and although there are moments that the rawness shows, she does the bulk of the heavy lifting in the film. Roshan Mathew has a charming presence that serves the character of Sushant well; it’s easy to see why Sarita fell for him all those years ago. Sushant has an integrity about him despite basically being a slacker, and Roshan brings out his complexities effectively.

The film is certainly a change of pace for Kashyap who is far away from the badlands of Wasseypur here. In its little moments of unexpected humor, crackling dialogues, and the overall authenticity of the world created, it still bears some of his stamp. What it needed was a sharper, more focused script.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for ‘Choked’. It’s a minor entry in Kashyap’s varied filmography.

Rating: 2.5 / 5