Bornila Chatterjee’s The Hungry (2017) – IFFLA- U. S. Theatrical Premiere, April 13

Revenge was never so cruel

Adapting Shakespeare from the setting of Roman power struggle to contemporary India is a good fit since corporate greed extracts just as much blood in full sunlight. Bornila Chatterjee reworks the bard with polish appropriate for corporate India. It is a film that would make any producer of commercials envious but scriptwriters less so. The Hungry (2017) boasts an impressive production design, luminous presence of major stars (Naseeruddin Shah, Tisca Chopra, and Neeraj Kabi) unleashed across glossy screen, luscious skin-tones, and pleasurable close-ups. The film depicts a bloody rivalry between two families vying for some abstract “contracts” that would add to what appear to be already overflowing fortunes. We hit a bargain here, relish the performances of Shah and Chopra in return for a narrative that is strewn with dead bodies, blood streams, daggers, guns, and gory close-ups. Little is revealed in terms of the mechanism that makes humans heat up in anger or give in to the bodily passions.

A young man is found dead in a bathtub, deemed to be a suicide. His mother’s (Tulsi Joshi) instincts say otherwise. When the family’s business partner, Tathagat Ahuja (Naseeruddin Shah), returns from a minor, unrelated prison sentence, she plots revenge. The setting is a marriage between Tulsi and Tathagat’s bumbling son, Sonny. Tulsi’s other son comes in town and in a fit of anger and vengeance, brutally attacks Tathagat’s favorite child, his daughter, Loveleen. The spiral of violence intensifies, consuming nearly everyone. Tulsi holds her ground, raging with revenge but straining to compose herself in each encounter with rabidly off-track family. It is battle between a vengeful woman and a powerful man but in Chatterjee’s adaptation, Tulsi comes off as more sympathetic than Tathagat.

Chatterjee leaves little doubt that the aristocratic families lust for more wealth, modelling themselves after the corporate caricatures that Bollywood has erected. The lingua-franca of this class is English. Their aspirations, palatial mansions, shiny objects and interminable greed. The actual machinations of the rivalry between the family remain less illustrated than their five-star floors, high-ceiling hallways, and a near-invisible servers-in-waiting. The nouveau riche of the neo-liberal economy are drug addicts, and violent family members. The scant conversation between the characters is kept minimum, wanting for some depth.

Nick Cooke’s cinematography is generous in revealing the lighted textures of surfaces and skins. Scenes of horror are captured in merciful economy of composition. The overall appearance of the film is that of a staged fashion spread, offering visual pleasure to the viewer. In the process, the two actors are rewarded with the glamor and glory they deserve. Naseeruddin Shah’s Tathagat is a terrifying villain, relishing each move to extract a pound-of-flesh from the rival. The the regal age of experience behind him, he brings forth an unforgettable portrait of a Shakespearean cruelty to the screen. While Cooke’s camera is focused on Shah’s presence and his calculated kinetic body, it meditates on Tisca Chopra’s face. Tulsi’s anger is palpable but in reserve.  Hers is an empowering performance, maintaining the center of gravity against Shah and the large cast around her. Chopra would do well in a role that allows her to show a wider range of talents, developing a character of greater complexity.

Unusual but impressive to see an Indian film to embrace graphic violence. A crowd-pleaser that offers a feast for the eyes, though some of it is quite bloody.   

 

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