‘The Hungry’: Film Review | TIFF 2017

The Hungry - STILL 1 - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
Pass the steak sauce, please.

Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra tangle in a handsome Indian take on 'Titus Andronicus,' Shakespeare’s wildest revenge play.

After Julie Taymor’s 1999 bloodbath Titus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, here comes an Indian adaptation of Shakespeare’s gorefest revenge play Titus Andronicus. Stately and gruesome, The Hungry occupies that same uneasy place between Greek tragedy, genre and art house. Setting aside the niceties of her romantic first feature Let’s Be Out, The Sun Is Shining, director Bornila Chatterjee follows a family of corrupt, evil characters from India’s ruling class as they indulge in tit-for-tat horror. Though over-the-top as political commentary, or maybe too obvious, it’s stylishly shot and nicely cast, forecasting a healthy fest run after its Toronto bow.

Whether the world needs another Titus is a question, but without this cultural reference the action makes very little sense. Here the Roman general is reincarnated as elderly tycoon Tathagat Ahuja (veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah), whose dynasty includes his barely alive wife in a wheelchair, their sassy young daughter Loveleen (Sayani Gupta, Margarita With a Straw) and stoned-out heir Sunny (Arjun Gupta). His business partner has died, leaving Tulsi, a beautiful widow in her forties (Tisca Chopra, Qissa),to carry on with her two sons, the bright Ankur (an emotion-packed cameo by Suraj Sharma, the teenager from Life of Pi) and dull Chirag (Antonio Aakeel).

Even this pared-down character list is hard to keep straight as the action unfolds in bits and pieces through layers of flashbacks. The opening murder takes place during a flashy New Year’s party. Ankur is offered a golden opportunity to take part in a business meeting with a minister and makes the mistake of taping the conversation on his phone, not realizing it will end with a bag full of rupees being delivered to the pol. He pays for his naivete dearly, being offed in the opening scene, but who exactly killed him remains up in the air.

His mother and brother are as unconvinced by his suicide note as the audience, but Mom knows how to bide her time till the moment is ripe. Jump forward two years: She is on the verge of remarrying into the Ahuja family. The bridegroom is the goofy Sunny, much her junior, but from the way she steals looks at Ahuja’s mousy fixer Arun Kumar (Neeraj Kabi), it seems her interests lie elsewhere. As the wedding nears, Chirag returns from abroad and throws a monkey wrench into the works when he goes berserk with lovely Loveleen one night.

Anyone watching the film without the play in mind will be startled at this unjustified outburst of bloody, mutilating violence and its aftermath, which is worthy of any Midnight Madness venue. But it’s just the intro to the Grand Guignol of the cannibalistic finale, when revenge bounces back to Ahuja’s court.  

In the role of the foul-mouthed, duded-up godfather, Shah maintains a controlling aplomb that leaves no doubt who’s calling the shots. The camera fairly tiptoes around him while he broods on vengeance. A woman of few words, Chopra has the dark, unforgiving looks of Maria Callas in Medea. Her tribal bracelets and tiara recall her character’s origin in Tamora, Queen of the Goths.

Of note among the family’s druggy, alcoholic younger gen is Sayani Gupta as the ill-fated Loveleen in her Crazy Horse haircut and sequined flapper dress. Unable to speak after her ordeal, she cleverly communicates the name of her murderer to her father by lighting a lamp/chirag.

Apart from Sheetal Sharma’s eye-catching costumes, tech credits work together to create a highly atmospheric film. DP Nick Cooke’s diffuse lighting offers the unsettling colors of the polluted dawn mist in New Delhi, or the mirrored white hall of glass, a sort of corridor of power, inside the Ahuja family complex.

Production companies: Microwave International, Cinestaan Film Company
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Tisca Chopra, Neeraj Kabi, Arjun Gupta, Antonio Akeel, Sayani Gupta, Karan Pandit, Jayant Kripalani, Suraj Sharma, Savita Rani, Antonio Aakeel
Director: Bornila Chatterjee
Screenwriters:  Bornila Chatterjee, Kurban Kassam, Tanaji Dasgupta
Producers: Kurban Kassam, Tanaji Dasgupta
Director of photography: Nick Cooke
Production designer: Aradhana Seth
Costume designer: Sheetal Sharma
Editor: Jamie Kataky
Music: Benedict Taylor
Casting director: Nandini Shrikent
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
World sales: C International Sales

100 minutes