An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, The Hungry builds a complex, layered narrative centred around two families mired in success, money and corruption. The Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra starrer questions the extents to which human behaviour can be distorted when faced with the lust for revenge.
It’s been 5 years since your debut. What inspired The Hungry?
The first film I wrote and directed is called Let’s Be Out, The Sun Is Shining. It’s a love story that I made in Brooklyn with my best friends from film school right after we graduated. I had blown all of my savings making that film so the next three years were spent working at an acting studio. During that time I shared some of my writing with Tanaji, a good friend from my theatre days. While I was in New York, Tanaji had been working in films in Calcutta, first with Aparna Sen and then with Q. He liked my screenplay and wanted to produce it. For a few months we worked on developing it trans-atlantically, but in 2013, I left New York and came back to India after nine years. We took the script to the Co-Production Market at Film Bazaar, where we heard of the initiative between Cinestaan and Film London to develop and fund one Indian adaptation of a Shakespeare play to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. Tanaji was keen to adapt Titus Andronicus. At first I thought this was a terrible idea. Regardless, I promised Tanaji that I would read the play. When I did, what really struck me was the emotional roller coaster that Shakespeare had created for his main characters. The complexity, poetry and tragedy of Titus and Tamora’s emotions really hit home, way more than the gore and the various dismemberments for which the play is known. In the very first scene of the play, Tamora begs Titus to take her own life instead of her son’s. But Titus kills her son and that act triggers the chain of vengeful events, in which Tamora becomes more and more heinous. Both Tanaji and I wanted to explore Tamora’s story. So we submitted a script that, several drafts later, would become The Hungry.
What lies at the heart of The Hungry?
The futility of violence—that’s what lies at the heart of the original play and of our film. Once Nick Cooke, our cinematog- rapher and Benedict Taylor, our composer came on board and we began discussing visuals, soundscape and atmosphere, we realised that we could build something akin to a modern Grimm Brothers tale. With The Hungry, I wanted to try to strike a balance between moments of unapologetic melodrama and moments of quiet and intimacy.
How was it to direct Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra?
Naseer had read the play and had a great sense of what needed to be retained and where we could depart from the source. Tisca asked lots of hard questions so if I didn’t have an answer for her, I knew it was something that I needed to go back and figure out. They were really patient with me, even when I forgot to call cut, which happened one too many times. I would get so caught up in their performances, I thought I was watching a movie and forgot that I was making one!
The film is driven by complex, layered emotions. Was it a challenge to build these into the narrative?
I think you need to be aware that emotions are layered, but not chase that complexity...otherwise you might end up with something that is more confusing than it is complex. You need to go after the simplest manifestations of an emotion, and be aware that since emotion is a living thing, it will change from moment to moment and will be affected by the world around it.
How has your childhood influenced your passion for cinema?
My dad was obsessed with painting and ceramics. My mom would direct the children’s play every Durga Puja. When I was a teenager, I acted in plays with Red Curtain and the Seagull Foundation for the Arts—it opened up this new world to me. I became really interested in the mechanism of visual storytelling. Like how picture and sound are combined to create a very intentional emotion in the audience. I wanted to be able to create that magic myself. Then I applied to film school at NYU and made it. My four years at Tisch cemented my love of films.
What kind of themes do you find yourself gravitating towards?
I’m always interesting in exploring sexual politics—how men and women navigate power or powerlessness in their lives.
There are a couple of screenplays I am working on, including one about intimacy and the relationships that emerge among an unlikely trio and the space they inhabit—a crumbling mansion in the heart of Calcutta.
Text Ritupriya basu & Hansika lohani Mehtani