Thursday 5 October 2017

At the LFF: "The Hungry"

The passion of Indian filmmakers for Shakespeare continues unabated: with Vishal Bhardwaj hoovering up the Bard's prestige plays - updating Macbeth as 2003's Maqbool, Othello as 2006's Omkara and Hamlet as 2014's Haider - it's been left to newcomer Bornila Chatterjee to take a freehand approach to adapting the eternally problematic Titus Andronicus for the screen. Not for Chatterjee the gleeful theatrical excess that elevated Julie Taymor's pre-millennial adaptation Titus; The Hungry, in striking contrast, unfolds as a coolly restrained, quietly gripping slowburn, detailing the skulduggery that accompanies a transfer of power within a family-owned and operated agribusiness in latter-day New Delhi. (One touchstone looks to have been Michael Almereyda's corporate Hamlet from 2000.) After a prologue that sets out the staged suicide of corporate seedling Ankur (Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma), the bulk of the action is compressed into a coked-up wedding party, overseen by icy patriarch Tathagat (Naseeruddin Shah), in which the planned union - a sealing of deals, on several levels - unravels into bloody chaos. An element of Hitchcockian tease gets built in here: the minute we clock one of the guests offering a gift of a ceremonial duelling pistol, we can be fairly sure the reception will go off with a bang, and it hardly settles the nerves that so much of the food is being served up on skewers.

Yet faced with the play's ever-growing pile-up of cadavers, Chatterjee elects to hold back on the lipsmacking relish. Her deaths are a grim business, and taking her time allows her to invest even her source's pulpier aspects with greater depth. Losses are mourned; the seeds of revenge are carefully planted; and - with the assistance of emergent cinematographer Nick Cooke - some very crisp images are composed. This Titus isn't just a parade of horrors, sick joke or some other assault on the audience's notions of taste, but a labyrinthine plot with especially dark corners, and fleshed-out characters whose wanton appetites point them inexorably towards death, rather than the growth their company would represent: the final act, indeed, squares capitalism and consumption with a cruel kick Peter Greenaway would likely appreciate. I couldn't entirely puzzle out whether Arjun Gupta's posturing, US-educated groom Sunny was meant to be quite so annoying, or whether that was just a side-effect of a ticky performance, but everyone else fits their role like hand in murderous glove: I don't believe I've ever seen Shah play this cold-blooded on screen before. In taking some of the heat out of her material, Chatterjee has given us a film that arguably builds upon its source - and, just perhaps, reflects the cutthroat realities of Modi's business-first India more starkly and dramatically than the PM's supporters would find comfortable.

The Hungry screens this Saturday (6.15pm) at Picturehouse Central, and again on Sunday (8.45pm) at Rich Mix.  

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