“Isn’t it amazing, the way Naseeruddin swears? He makes it sound like poetry!”
It’s less an observation and more an exultation by Bornila Chatterjee, director of The Hungry, a movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, starring Naseeruddin Shah, Tisca Chopra, Neeraj Kabi and Sayani Gupta. The Hungry was one of several Indian productions at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and was screened alongside Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, Hansal Mehta’s Omerta, Rima Das’ Village Rockstars, and Paakhi A Tyrewala’s Pahuna: The Little Visitors. After its world premiere in Toronto, The Hungry will have its European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and its South Asian premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival, both in October.
Set in contemporary India and shot on location at a mud fort in Kuchesar in Uttar Pradesh over 22 days, The Hungry is an atmospheric revenge drama played out amidst ultra-rich industrialists. Tulsi Joshi (Chopra) is about to marry Sunny Gupta (Arjun Gupta), the cocaine-addled son of Tathagupta Gupta (Shah), a ruthless corporate tycoon who spouts poetry and Hindi expletives with equal measure. The wedding has a darker purpose. Tulsi is looking for revenge for the murder of her son Ankur (Suraj Sharma); Tathagata harbours other desires than a business deal; Loveleen (Sayani Gupta); Tathagata’s daughter, falls victim to the brutality that surrounds her bright spirit.
Sitting steps away from the red carpet hubbub along with co-writers and co-producers Tanaji Dasgupta and Kurban Kassam as well as cast members Chopra, Sayani and Antonio Aakeel, Chatterjee soaked in some sun and hand-rolled cigarettes, explaining how she and Dasgupta came to “loosely adapt” one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays, infamous for being among the bard’s earliest and bloodiest works.
“Basically we pitched it as Monsoon Wedding gone horribly wrong,” Dasgupta said. Long-time collaborators who had acted in Shakespeare plays such as Othello in their late teens, the duo was attending the co-production market at Film Bazaar in Goa in 2014 when they heard of a call by Film London and Cinestaan Film Company. They were asking for an Indian film adaptation of a Shakespearean classic to mark the 400th death anniversary of the celebrated playwright. Chatterjee and Dasgupta won the grant in October 2015, and partnered with British filmmaker Kassam.
“It was a creatively arranged marriage,” Kassam said.
Rather than dip into the usual suspects, Dasgupta wanted to explore Titus Andronicus despite Chatterjee’s initial reticence. “My first interaction with Titus was at this really awful off-off-Broadway production, and it was pukka everything you would expect,” Chatterjee said. “Everybody dressed in black. They had red dupattas, and everyone was yelling … Cut to 2015, and when Tanaji said what if we adapt Titus, I was like, hell no.”
But Dasgupta convinced her to re-read the play, and Chatterjee immediately saw its appeal. Dasgupta had always been fascinated by the play’s seemingly out-of-control nature versus more polished plays such as Macbeth or Hamlet. That it was one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works was an added bonus in the liberties they could take with the original text full murder and mayhem.
“It’s raw and young,” Chaterje said. “You can see Shakespeare’s genius beginning there. There was a beauty to it, a raw brutality of nature, and it just clicked in India.”
Even Shah was disinterested when first approached. Dasgupta happened to be friends with one of his sons, and got a meeting. Despite his reluctance to act in a movie, and especially an adaptation of Titus Andronicus, Shah agreed to read the script.
“He called us back,” Dasgupta said. “He said two things. One, that the script was really smart. And that it was really relevant to what’s happening in India today. Back when we were meeting him, the Indrani Mukerjea case was playing out.”
The first order was to find characters who considered themselves above the law. Immediately, they thought of rich North Indians with sprawling estates in remote parts of India “where nobody knows what happens except for them”, Dasgupta said. News stories such as the unexplained deaths of liquor and real estate barons Monty and Ponty Chadha informed the script.
“They were two brothers who just went to their farmhouse and shot each other, and their bodyguards shot each other,” Dasgupta said. “It was the most bizarre news which we were all gripped by for a month or so. It begged the question – how is that even possible?”
Then there was “that South Indian wedding”, Kassam said, referring to the mining baron and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Janardhan Reddy’s daughter Rs 550-crore wedding in 2016. The grandiose nature of the nuptials shocked Kassam. Growing up in Manchester and watching Amitabh Bachchan films such as Don and Sholay, Kassam has been clueless about the lives of the rich and infamous in India. One of the details in news reports of the Reddy wedding also made it into a scene: “[Reddy] handed a gun to his future son-in-law. I said, let’s do it.”
Meanwhile, Tisca Chopra drew from personal experiences. At one time her father, a school principal, was beaten up for not giving admission to a well-connected student. “The police were in cahoots with the MLA,” she said. “My father had 24 multiple compound fractures, he was in hospital for a month. Prior to that, when I was studying in Noida, I was in Class 8, and a kid in Class 6 was kidnapped. She never returned to school. So I kept on thinking that this story [of The Hungry] is not entirely untrue.”
The magic of a micro budget, a tight schedule and on-location shoot helped them to suspend disbelief. Since the cast and crew stayed together throughout the filmmaking process, and there were unending discussions of the motivations of the characters, The Hungry was close to a theatre experience, Chopra said.
“In the morning, you wake up and see Naseeruddin walking by. There was a sense of belonging,” she said.
For Chatterjee, the entire process has been a gift, especially given that this is only her second feature film after Let It Be Out, The Sun is Shining (2012). While Sayani was so committed to their role that she dragged herself across farm fields for the brutal violence her character goes through, watching veterans such as Shah and Chopra through her monitor was like a master class in acting for Chatterjee.
One moment stands out for Chatterjee. For non-Delhites, the first image of a Delhi winter is fog. When the crew first arrived in the capital a week before the shoot, it was enveloped by a heavy fog that lifted as soon as the cameras started rolling.
“Everyone else was happy, and [cinematographer Nick Cooke] and I were like, where’s the bloody fog?” Chatterjee said. “It’s Shakespeare, where’s the mist?”
Although fog machines were brought on the sets, it wasn’t the same thing. Then, just as they started to shoot the scenes where the film takes a much darker tone, the fog started to roll in. “And it was just beautiful … It’s as if the fog knew the call time.”