“The Hungry” gives all the blood and none of the context

Titus Andronicus is thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy—written with an eye on the popular genre of revenge plays in fashion in 16th-century England. It accounts the feverish political squabbles of the Roman elite and the bloodbath which follows.

It’s a gnarling and vicious text. Characters are murdered and mutilated seemingly at every turn. The vileness is severe, even for Shakespeare, who made his career as a playwright on the back of his characters’ early tombstones. The anti-hero, obsessive revenge, bloodlust and violence, though certainly not the invention of Shakespeare, are yet inherently Shakespearean traits.

It’s why modern adaptations reimagining the great playwright’s work are necessary—if not, at the very least, exciting—when they debut. There has not been a point in human history where stories told of the harm powerful people are willing to inflict on themselves rings relevant. To this date, though, most have fallen flat in their ambition, The Hungry, a film which recasts the Roman tragedy in modern India, carries on that tradition.

Bornila Chatterjee is one of the most exciting filmmakers working in international cinema, and in India today. Her latest film was hand picked by TIFF’s lead programmer Cameron Bailey for an early September world premiere. Her strengths as a director shine through in The Hungry, most notably its dreamlike cinematography and appropriately anxious and dark tone. Her cast similarly delivers stellar performances, particularly the film’s lead Tisca Chopra, who possesses the rare ability to convey worlds of meaning with few, if any, words.

It’s within the narrative sphere that The Hungry falls flat. The film opens with a confusing
and disorienting scene of a New Year’s Eve party. At its end, a character we may have taken as a lead is dead and some machinations seem to be set in place as a result. It takes a good chunk of the film to vaguely piece together what we’re watching. Two seemingly powerful families within India’s elite seem at both parts intimately connected and at war. For whatever reason, both seem hell bent on killing one another, and time and time again they’re successful in that task. When some characters brutally murder others they seem to regret it, other times they seem elated in accomplishing the one thing they seem to be living for.

Very early a question creeps into your head: why should I care? It never really leaves. The circumstances surrounding the film’s opening are vaguely alluded to again and again as the cause of all the on-screen violence, but even once we’re given all the pieces of the puzzle near the films closing act, we’re still left to wonder what the point is. Are these families really this hell-bent on killing each other out of revenge? Do they merely want to dominate some vague top position in India’s elite or business ladder? We’re given all the blood and none of the context.

If The Hungry’s intent is to critique power and violence, its shortcoming is that it’s all it offers by way of story. In many ways, it’s a slasher film cast in the wrong atmosphere. The script pins its continuation on each death, but at least in a straightforward slasher we see a story of innocent versus unknown evil—in this, we become frustrated by a story of pointlessly evil people killing pointlessly evil people.

One such aspect of Shakespeare’s enduring relevance in contemporary culture is the clarity in which, though his plays, we can analyze motivated evil. When the all-powerful possess the means to pursue the dark aspects of human nature, why is it that they do? It’s the “why” that makes the bard’s plays worthy of fresh interpretation, and it’s the lack of “why” which turns The Hungry’s dreamy film world into a bland nightmare.