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Appetite for Destruction: 'The Hungry' adapts Shakespeare's darkest and bloodiest

Interview with Director Bornila Chaterjee at IFFLA 2018

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Ruhi Sinha
May 12, 2018
Tisca Chopra in
Tisca Chopra in 'The Hungry' © Cinestaan/Film London

‘The Hungry’ is not for the faint of heart. Boldly adapting one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known and darkest works – ‘Titus Andronicus’, the film directed by Bornila Chatterjee, transports you to a haunting world with an unending spiral of deceit and revenge. The treacherous tale of two elite North Indian business families – Ahujas and Joshis, gets bloodier and ghastlier as the plot unravels, culminating in the most unthinkable final act of brutal vengeance.

Shakespeare wrote ‘Titus Andronicus’ in his mid-twenties when he was, in all likelihood, still exploring his talent. The play which is rife with grisly murders and twisted characters is considered his bloodiest and most violent work. Director Bornila Chatterjee and co-writer Tanaji Dasgupta were fascinated by this utterly raw and rarely revisited piece and chose to adapt it when they heard about an initiative between Cinestaan and Film London, to develop and fund an Indian adaptation of Shakespeare in celebration of his 400th anniversary. Their bet paid off and won them a coveted spot in the international workshop.

Director Bornila Chatterjee (R) and co-writer Tanaji Dasgupta at IFFLA
Director Bornila Chatterjee (R) and co-writer Tanaji Dasgupta talk to us at the IFFLA 2018 red carpet

According to Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah was initially unwilling to act in a Titus adaptation as he thought it was Shakespeare’s worst work, but he promptly changed his mind after reading the duo’s script. With his signature panache, he plays Tathagat Ahuja – a business tycoon from Delhi who has arranged a marriage of convenience between his dim-witted son and the much older Tulsi Joshi – his deceased business partner’s daughter and a single mother. Unbeknownst to the Ahuja clan, Tulsi is marrying only to seek revenge for her first-born son’s murder. Masterfully played by Tisca Chopra, Tulsi is the centerpiece of this bone-chilling saga and she conveys much more through her enigmatic, unforgiving smile than words ever could. Aside from the two leads, one of the most memorable roles is played by the talented Sayani Gupta, whose character ‘Loveleen’ meets the most undeserved bitter fate that gave everyone in the audience goose bumps (and in my case, a sleepless night). Loveleen’s last act of leaving a clue about her assailant is one of the most clever moments in this wild tale.

The film’s silent, perilous tone with its lush, sweeping cinematography in Delhi’s foggy winter provides the perfect backdrop for its well-paced plot, leading to its final crescendo that will be imprinted on your memory forever.

Sayani Gupta in
Sayani Gupta in 'The Hungry' © Cinestaan/Film London

Director Bornila Chatterjee gave us some insight into her power-packed film.

Why ‘Titus Andronicus’? Was it you or Tanaji who first picked this play?
It was Tana’s [Tanaji Dasgupta] idea. I wanted to do something like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ but Tana felt strongly about the potential of Titus. And when I read it, a lot of what he was saying stood out to me as well – like the face-off between a very powerful patriarch and a very powerful matriarch and the themes of grief and even PTSD. It is one of Shakespeare’s first tragedies which he wrote around his mid-twenties and so you can totally see that he’s trying a lot of stuff with it. We were able to go through the play and sort of pick and choose what we wanted to keep in our version. Since we were working within a lot of constraints, it would have been crazy to adapt it as-is. I’m really glad that Tana suggested it and had faith that I could direct it.

When you go about doing something as daunting as taking the world’s most celebrated playwright’s work and planting it in a totally different culture and era, how do you try to remain true to the essence of his story?

Well I think you sort of answered the question for us! You need to hone in on the essence of the story and start from there. Shakespeare’s plays are lauded for the beauty of his language, the universality of his themes and subsequently, the timelessness of his stories. For us, we knew we wanted to take Tamora – the villain of Titus Andronicus – and turn her into the heroine of our film. So immediately, the story was bent and reworked to see things more from her perspective. As for the language, since the original text wouldn’t work in the time/place that we were setting our film in, we instead focused on making our visual language as beautiful as possible. The language of Titus Andronicus is very vivid and full of natural and wild imagery that we tried to capture in the cinematography, costumes, and production design of the film instead.

In recent years, director Vishal Bhardwaj has famously adapted Shakespeare’s plays into his successful trilogy. Were you in any way inspired by his work?

For sure. His adaptations are proof that you can be faithful to the spirit of the original text while creating a new tale that is cool and exciting and entirely your own.

Tisca Chopra in
Tisca Chopra in 'The Hungry' © Cinestaan/Film London

It was great to watch Tisca Chopra as a protagonist in your film. Her performance had great subtlety and depth. What made you cast her in this unusual role?

Yay! Really glad to hear that. I love Tisca’s voice – it’s soft and lilting and for me, it is very difficult to imagine someone who sounds so lovely to be capable of desiring and then doing the things that her character does in the film. That is exactly why we wanted her. She brings so much intrigue to the character just by being herself. And as an artist, the choices she makes are spontaneous, layered and very uniquely her. It was really special to be able to create this character with her.

The film is very lean on dialogue and a lot is said between the lines. Was that a deliberate choice?

Absolutely. We wanted lots of silence and bits of violence.

Naseeruddin Shah in
Naseeruddin Shah in 'The Hungry' © Cinestaan/Film London

What are your plans for distribution?

The film is available on Amazon Prime in India and the rest of the world!

What would be your advice for aspiring independent filmmakers?

Always remember to say please and thank you. And never take no for an answer, especially from yourself.

Bornila Chatterjee holds a BFA in Film and Television from New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. Her first feature film “Let’s Be Out, The Sun Is Shining” premiered at the 2012 New York Indian Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. ‘The Hungry’ was an official selection at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, 2018.

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