'The Hungry' Review: Shakespeare's Bloodiest Play Becomes An Indian Crime Drama [New York Indian Film Festival]

The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is one of the harder-to-adapt Shakespeare plays. Its ultra-violence can border on self-parody if mishandled, and losing that element of the story leaves it somewhat limp. Even when juggled deftly, it's simply grotesque. Though as with any transposition of the Bard to a modern setting – in this case, New Delhi – it's the adaptation of context that seems to matter most.

Enter Bornilla Chatterjee's The Hungry, Andronicus loosely set against family industrialism in northern India. The Andronicus's and Goths are now the Ahujas and Joshis, agrarian business partners entangled in political corruption on the eve of a family wedding. The play's basic framework remains, a cyclical revenge saga (minus the rape), though its characters are combined for an easier follow.

It's a performance piece first and foremost, anchored by a stellar cast. Naseeruddin Shah plays Tathagat Ahuja, the Titus role, with a fierce wisdom, descending into the kind of operatic madness reserved for Hamlet or Lady Macbeth. His counterfoils however are Tisca Chopra and Neeraj Kabi as Tulsi Joshi (Tamora) and Arun Kumar (Aaron), whose calm amidst their plotting is quiet and unsettling, as they watch the pandemonium unfold from the shadows. Though even as the actors take center stage at all times, Chatterjee underscores their increasingly frayed dynamics with some truly alluring film-craft.

The Hungry is precise and immaculate. Its pristine façade glows with the glamour of an expensive Chanel advert, though its score and sound design keep creaking and cracking, stretching as if to accommodate the slowly unraveling psyches of its volatile characters. Its shimmering pillars flank Tathagat and the likes as they make booming, poetic speeches – contrasted with their coarse swearing behind closed doors – while the ravishing dishes carried out to tables, as if in procession, feel like the spoils of some unseen victory. How the families got their wealth doesn't seem to matter, whether it was inherited or built on the backs of others. Their children are now the victors; Loveleen and Sunny Ahuja on one side (Sayani Gupta and Arjun Gupta, as the film's Lavinia and an amalgam of Titus' sons) and Chirag and Ankur Joshi on the other (Antonio Aakeel and Suraj Sharma as Chiron and Alarbus).

Ankur's death, under mysterious circumstances two years prior, spurs the older generation into a mad scramble for power and vengeance, but its effects on Loveleen, Sunny and Chirag are more personally destructive. They turn to drink and drug and apathy, unable to escape Ankur's memory as much as they may try, through Ankur's invisible specter is matched by the poisonous presence of Tathagat, who likely had a hand in his death. Tathagat, a family man, grows increasingly concerned with the "business" half of the "family business" dynamic, until he's yanked over the opposite edge by Loveleen's mysterious (and bloody) disappearance. Chatterjee scales back the gratuitous gore of the source, framing her acts of violence in darkness so that we only bear witness to their lingering effects. The writhing bodies and desperate cries of bleeding, well-meaning characters are more wince-inducing than the bursting of any blood-pack.

Before the film hits its audacious peak – an over-the-top culmination literalizing its characters' desires to consume one another – it breathes. Freely, no doubt, but like a creeping whisper in the dark, as Chatterjee and cinematographer Nick Cooke's camera punctuate the characters' lyrical assertions of familial harmony with movement that feels distinctly off-kilter, hinting at their hypocrisy. If the camera tracks forward, perhaps on an empty hallway, it does so as foreground to secretive exchanges we ought not be privy to. If the frame zooms in on a character, it does so slightly, almost invisibly, to the point that even Naseeruddin Shah's detestable Tathagat becomes subtly magnetic.

While The Hungry doesn't quite offer any new insight into its chosen setting – its shareholder-talk is unspecific, as is any surrounding socio-cultural malaise that facilitates the Ahujas' and Joshi's ascension –  the film's focus is, perhaps rightly, on the brokenness lurking just beneath its characters' superficial grandeur. While acontextual, it's streamlined, to the point that who's getting stepped on doesn't matter to the people doing the stepping so long as we get glimpses of both in close proximity. Curiously, each family seems to extend across one section of the South Asian diaspora (perhaps owing to the accent-blind casting, but the effect remains) as the parents and one child on either side sound like they were raised in India, with their siblings having been raised elsewhere. Sunny Ahuja (American actor Arjun Gupta) and Chirag Joshi (England's Antonio Akeel) reveal a financial casualness with which each clan can not only send their kids off to study abroad, but a westernized cultural flexibility that allows them to assimilate without care or consequence – its own form of power, withheld from Indians lower down the social ladder.

Ultimately, The Hungry is a moody, audio-visual feast. Everything simply clicks into place, feeling almost seamless despite the tireless precision no doubt involved in its assembly. One might question whether it has anything to say beyond peering at cracks in gilded walls built on systems of disparity, but it's the kind of delicacy served to its decadent characters, and so we should feel spoiled to have it.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10