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Bornila Chatterjee talks The Hungry

  • Bornila Chatterjee

Ahead of The Hungry's world premiere in Toronto, we talked to writer-director Bornila Chatterjee about her unique feature film set in modern-day India but inspired by Shakespeare.

In this UK-India co-production, Tulsi Joshi, a widow and bride-to-be, arrives at her own wedding seeking revenge for the brutal murder of her first-born son. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, The Hungry explores the violence that exists between power and love - a macabre fairytale set in the elite circles of northern India. Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra star.

The film is written and directed by Bornila Chatterjee (Let’s Be OutThe Sun is Shining) and co-written and produced by Tanaji Dasgupta (ChittagongSold) and Kurban Kassan (The Party, 20,000 Days on Earth, Ginger and Rosa).

The film was born from desire to forge stronger links between the Indian and UK film industries, with Film London and Cinestaan embarking on an ambitious process which united talent from the two continents. The result is a true international collaboration, comprising a team of international filmmakers; a cast of exciting new and established talent from India and the UK; glorious Mumbai backdrops and post-production courtesy of London’s world-renowned Twickenham Studios.

The British Council had previously supported Film London to run international versions of its Microschool and together we hit on the notion of doing one for Indian and UK participants themed around Shakespeare, as part of our UK/India 2017 Year of Culture.

After its world premiere at TIFF, The Hungry will have its European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and its Asian premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival. C International Sales is handling international sales.

Ahead of The Hungry's premiere in Toronto, Bornila told British Council's Wendy Mitchell more about her inspirations for the film.

Are you a big lover of Shakespeare?
I enjoy some of his plays, but I wouldn’t consider myself an aficionado.

Why was Titus Andronicus a story you were drawn to?
To be honest, I hated the play for years since my first experience of it was too excruciating. A guy once took me to see an off-off Broadway production of Titus Andronicus for our first date. All the characters just shouted their lines and tumbled around in red cloth. I love theater, but this was torture. The guy I was with on the other hand, just loved it. We never spoke again.

So when Tanaji first suggested we adapt Titus, I have to say I rolled my eyes. But I promised to read the play before dismissing it entirely. 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. Regardless, Titus kills her son and that act triggers the chain of vengeful events, in which Tamora becomes more and more heinous...

Tanaji, Kurban and I all wondered how different it might be if Tamora was the protagonist of her own story and not the nemesis in someone else’s. So we took Shakespeare’s arch villain and turned her into our heroine.

Why did you want your main character to be a single mother?
Shakespeare's Tamora was on her own. So is our Tulsi.

What was exciting about working on a UK-Indian co-production?
As a director, I would say the coming together of different perspectives and different work ethics. It made the process feel fresh, constantly learning from and adapting to each other, while trying to create our own shared film language which is the backbone of this movie.

Why was a wedding the right backdrop for the story you want to tell?
In order to get the most out of our budget under the Microwave scheme, we wanted to come up with a story that was, for the most part, restricted to one location. A wedding is ideal for that, since it a lot of people come together in one space for a couple of days. And there’s something twisted about a bride coming to her own wedding with the express desire to  annihilate the groom and his family. That really appealed to Tanaji, Kurban and me.

What was the experience of Microschool like, did anything specific that you learned there shape how you made the film?
Yes, totally. The very first draft we took to Microschool was far more faithful to the source material. But under the guidance of our mentors (Amit Gupta, Shefali Malhoutra and Andrea Calderwood) we gained the confidence to move away from the original plot and away from the idea of simply ‘recreating’ the play as an Indian film.

Why do you think Shakespeare’s themes fit well in this modern Indian story?
His plays gets right to the essence of being human. The broad themes of Titus - revenge, power, family and grief - these transcend time and geography.

Your cast includes a big Bollywood star, Naseeruddin Shah, were you nervous to work with him?
Not really. He’s a phenomenal actor and one of the things that makes him amazing to watch and amazing to work with is that he cares so much - about the work, the story, this thing that we are creating together. He works extensively in theater and in fact, pretty much everyone in our main cast is currently active in theater or has a strong background in it. Because of that, there was a really strong sense of community, collaboration and generosity amongst the cast which I think is a very beautiful aspect of theater-making that was recreated on our set.

Are you excited or nervous for the film’s premiere in Toronto?
A bit of both.