Why Bornila Chatterjee's The Hungry might be one of the most violent adaptations of Shakespeare ever

It's both real and unreal

The trailer of The Hungry was released in August 2017  to rave reviews. Though the film hasn’t had a theatrical release in India yet, it has managed to make all the right noises in the festival circuit. In its review, Hollywood Reporter calls it stately and gruesome. Apparently, The Hungry occupies that same uneasy place between Greek tragedy, genre and art house.

Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Tisca Chopra, Neeraj Kabi and Sayani Gupta among others, the film is an adaptation of Titus Andronicus, the most panned play of the Bard.  The film will be screened at the ongoing Dharamsala Film Festival and saw its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. It was also screened at the recently concluded MAMI 2018.

We talked to the director of the film, Bornila Chatterjee on independent films, working on an extremely disturbing story and what bothers her about the film industry.


Why did you choose to make a film on the most maligned or not-so-celebrated play by Shakespeare?
Many reasons. One is of course that it’s the most maligned. I mean Hamlet or Othello are already celebrated so much. There was something liberating about the fact that people just hated it. And that sort of made me look at it again. The part of the story that we are talking about here is that it’s a face-off between two very strong individuals. Tamora in the play doesn’t back down. She goes on this violent rampage. She asks to spare her son and take her own life. How she goes from being this greedy mother to this heinous villain, doesn’t emerge very sympathetically towards the end of the play. So, we wanted to kind of give our take on it, to establish that she was the hero of the story and how that changes things. It’s quite relevant, actually. Not just India, I think that’s how the world is right now. It’s full of dog eats dog mentality everywhere.

Weren’t you skeptical about making The Hungry considering it’s so violent in nature? Also because somewhere Indian movie-goers are still addicted to happy endings in films.
That’s how the world is right now. We need to be jolted out of our senses. It is the strangest thing to say but it’s really a film that takes on a journey of despair, and by the end of it, I feel that it will leave you with the questions that I want it to leave you with.

What do you then do to bring reality and cinema together?
It’s not that difficult because you are highlighting how things really are. However, the film specifically is not a gritty drama. Half an hour into the film and you know that it’s real but it’s unreal. That’s how we wanted to shape the movie.

You have some great performers in the film — Tisca Chopra, Neeraj Kabi and of course, Naseeruddin Shah, along with Suraj Sharma. What took you to have them on board? Did they have any reservations?
Not at all. They were amazing. All of them said yes. We all worked on the script but none of them had any reservations. I think the reason they said yes was that the story really resonated (with them), and also maybe because they thought that it’s something they haven’t done before like the film is very violent and is about violence but it is not glorifying violence.

Most of the actors in your film are great theatre artists. How exactly did you extract them from the stage and make them act for the camera considering that even the subject of your film has been taken from a play? How easy or difficult does a director’s job become there?
Both Tisca and Naseeruddin Shah are both theatre and screen actors. The part of the reason these actors are doing this film is also that they have a very strong theatrical background. That’s where I come from. That’s where both my co-writer and producer come from. So, we all sort of enjoy filmmaking in a theatre-company way. We all discuss the script. I talk about the story from each character’s point of view and take their notes. On the set, we are living together and trying to build a relationship which is reflected on screen.

What kind of stories you want to tell?
Sexual politics is something that I think about. Like in this film, there’s a relationship, a struggle of power between a patriarch and a matriarch. Basically, human relationships that involve sexual politics and then how to mold that in the Indian context.

Is The Hungry also about building a certain sense of fondness for the evil, like falling for the bad or finding the most unlikeable things attractive?
Not really. It’s about family, power, loyalty. I say this because it’s difficult to like most of our characters. Only two of them show a nice side of them at some point in the film.

Has The Hungry also contributed to the ‘director’ Bornila Chatterjee? 
Yes, absolutely. Just the whole experience of working with the people I got on board, Naseer, Tisca, Sayani, Neeraj and all of them, I wish it could just stay. It’s just the joy of creating something with them. Everybody who worked on the film had more experience of working in India than me. They just believed in the story and allowed their lives to be challenged. I could see some of these brilliant artists pushing themselves to be more creative. I never had this experience before.

What are the things that bother you about the film industry, both as a director and the person that you are?
Honestly, I cannot answer it as a director because this is the first film in India that I have made. It’s more of a learning experience. One thing that I feel happy about today is that suddenly, I have way more access to films as a viewer. I can watch films from all across the world. But, 10 years ago, when I was growing up, this was impossible. In Kolkata, I remember, all I could see were Bengali films or maybe the Hindi blockbusters. Then, I used to think like where the other stories. The stories were there, they were being made, just that there was no access to such stories. I am just happy today that we have almost like an army of independent filmmakers all over the country who are really making varied films on important themes. It’s good to see such films and also to feel that I am part of this army.