In Conversation with Bornila Chatterjee on her directorial film ‘The Hungry’

The writer and director of the Indian revenge drama ‘The Hungry‘ throws light on the struggles of female directors in Indian.

In this interview, Chatterjee chats with us and tells us about dealing with sexism, her love for storytelling and the importance of catering movies on online streaming platforms. She’s been more than vocal about feminism and what we need to get from the concept. “Strong, weak, happy, sad, funny, tragic, genre, art-house, I don’t care. More women on screen, please!” she sighs. They say behind every successful man is a woman. But the truth is, behind and inside every successful human being is a feminine sensibility. Here’s to toast to that, and Bornila. Excerpts:

Our composer once jokingly referred to the film as an amoral tale, which I thought was a funny and apt way to describe it.

Q. Why did you choose ‘The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus’, the first tragedy of Shakespeare?
A. Back in 2015, Film London and Cinestaan partnered up to fund one Indian adaptation of a Shakespeare play to celebrate his 400th anniversary. When Tanaji Dasgupta and I heard of the competition, we decided to apply and set out to find a play to adapt. We pretty quickly settled on Titus because it was just so insane (and yet, weirdly relevant) and most people have never even heard of it. For us, that is what was so liberating. Because of its relative obscurity, we felt free to play with the story and the characters in a way that we probably could not have if we were dealing with, say, ‘The Tempest’.
Die-hard fans of Titus Andronicus might be disappointed because the original premise is hardly apparent in our film. From the start, we knew that we wanted to take Shakespeare’s evil queen Tamora and turn her into our somewhat sympathetic heroine Tulsi. So in our version, she is a single mother and a bride-to-be who is out to avenge the murder of her eldest son.

Q. What made you want to make The Hungry?
A. At the Film London/Cinestaan workshop in London, Tanaji and I were paired with Kurban Kassam, our UK producer who would go onto writing the screenplay with us too. As the three of us began revising our screenplay for the final pitch session, we realized that we wanted to write something that highlighted the futility of violence because that futility – for us – lies at the heart of the original play. Our composer once jokingly referred to the film as an amoral tale, which I thought was a funny and apt way to describe it.

When Tanaji and I first met Naseeruddin Shah, he asked us why we wanted to make Titus Andronicus because he didn’t think it was a very good play. We gave him our reasons and left our script with him asking him to read it when he had the chance.

Q. What film festivals did ‘The Hungry‘ do rounds of?
A. TIFF, BFI London, Rome, MAMI, DIFF (Dharamsala International Film Festival) and the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival on January 14 which okay, isn’t a film festival, but this is the first – and probably the last – screening of the film in our hometown (Tanaji and I both grew up here) so we are really pumped about it.

Q. Why was Tisca Chopra’s character alive in the end? What was the thought process behind it?
A. At the end of the day her character gets what she wants, but what kind of success is it if she has no one to share it with? Was it worth losing what she lost to get what she wanted? If she dies, then these questions die with her.

Q. How did you convince Naseeruddin Shah to do the film?
A. When Tanaji and I first met him, he asked us why we wanted to make Titus Andronicus because he didn’t think it was a very good play. We gave him our reasons and left our script with him asking him to read it when he had the chance. A couple hours later he messaged Tanaji saying he had read the script and that he wanted to work on it with us.

Being a woman in this country is not easy. Being a filmmaker – regardless of gender – is not easy either. There are the trials of being a woman and they are separate from the trials of being a filmmaker.

Q. How was it like working with Naseeruddin Shah? Has he given some input which you found fascinating?
A. Incredible. He cares so much about the work, the story, this thing that we are creating together. He read every draft we wrote and was candid with his thoughts. Because he was so familiar with the play, he had a great sense of what needed to be retained and where we could depart from the source. That candid generosity carried over into the set – he always had really simple and practical ideas to make a scene better. He is such a great teacher, even when he is not trying to teach you anything.

Q. How did you manage to bring together such a great cast for your film?
A. All thanks to my producers Tanaji Dasgupta and Kurban Kassam and our casting director Nandini Shrikent and her team. It took months of auditions to build the perfect ensemble with Naseeruddin Shah, Tisca Chopra and Neeraj Kabi at its core and even then, some of the cast happened by pure luck. For example, Karan Pandit – the actor who plays Bentley – messaged me on Facebook. I thank the universe that he did! He took that character to the next level.

Q. Narrate an anecdote of anything interesting that may have happened during the shoot?
A. We once had to pause shooting a scene with Tisca and Neeraj because, in another part of the haveli, the goats were ready for their shot. Tisca and Neeraj were great sports about it. One of them joked about how the crew treated the goats like stars (it’s true – we were all very quiet and efficient every time those goats were around). But that was the awesome thing about our shoot. Since we were all living and working together in the same space, a really strong, special camaraderie evolved among the cast and crew. When we finished shooting Antonio (the actor playing Chirag) hanging upside-down in the storeroom I remember hearing this big applause from outside. Turns out, every single other actor and crew member who was not in that room had gathered around the monitor outside to watch his performance. And that pretty much happened each time we shot a major scene for anyone in the cast. Everyone was invested in the entirety of the film and that was really beautiful and special.

The sheer volume of audiences that I’ve seen film festivals draw here strikes me as incredible. In which case, apart from film festivals, what is not there is the access, and access is out of the audience’s control. I would love if we had niche theatres such as Film Forum or Angelika Film Center which bring foreign films and independent films to New York.

Q. You won a special mention for the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality – what are the struggles of a woman in India as a filmmaker?
A. Being a woman in this country is not easy. Being a filmmaker – regardless of gender – is not easy either. There are the trials of being a woman and they are separate from the trials of being a filmmaker. When you are a woman and you are a filmmaker you find yourself dealing with both sets of ordeals. To be honest, the ordeals of being a filmmaker – I don’t mind them and I take them as they come, this is the profession that I chose and I knew what I was getting into and at the end of the day, getting to watch audiences react to your work makes it all kind of worth it. On the other hand, dealing with sexism and infantilization on a nearly constant basis because of my gender has gotten really old. Till date, my way of dealing with it has been to ignore it and focus on the positive but let’s be real, that’s a shitty way to deal with a shitty thing that women everywhere have to face. So I’m really glad that women’s rights, gender equality and sexual harassment are being discussed and dealt with openly because it’s about time we collectively recognize that it is a problem and a solution can be found. Being a woman in this country is not easy.
Thankfully, especially right now, we have some pretty boss ladies to look up to and learn from. I would love to see more films about women. I would love to see more films about women. Strong, weak, happy, sad, funny, tragic, genre, art-house, I don’t care. More women on screen, please.

With VOD I get to control the environment in which I watch content and I love that. More importantly, I have 24/7 access to a whole bunch of content that I would never have the chance to see otherwise.

Q. How long do you think it will take for the mass populace to accept and maybe even pay to watch Indie flicks in the theatres?
A. Oh, boy. We’re talking all Indians all over India with access to theatres, right? I seriously don’t know. I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough on that front. From what I can tell from my tiny corner of the country, the interest and the acceptance and the willingness to pay is all there. The sheer volume of audiences that I’ve seen film festivals draw here strikes me as incredible. In which case, apart from film festivals, what is not there is the access, and access is out of the audience’s control. I would love if we had niche theatres such as Film Forum or Angelika Film Center which bring foreign films and independent films to New York. I guess it would be a good case study to see how those businesses stay afloat because money is always a big factor in deciding what gets shown in cinemas and what does not.

Q. Who is your favourite director? What is the kind of cinema that garners your attention?
A. I love Lynne Ramsay’s work. I remember reading the screenplay for The Ratcatcher when I was in Class 9 or Class 10. This was way before I even thought about making movies. I was in the library at the British Council in Calcutta and the book cover was so arresting I pulled it out and read it in one sitting. It was the first screenplay I ever read. I just loved the writing. Years later, I watched the film in college and was blown away by it, as well as by her shorts and her other films. So if I only get to pick one director, it is her.
I love love. I love movies about relationships. I don’t care about plot or scale or genre. A really good movie about two people and the conflict between them gets me every time. The simpler the story the better. I just watched Dina at MAMI last year and it just killed me. What an awesome movie.

I would say that studying in the film school that I did, in the time in my life that I did, in the city that I did have all very strongly contributed to the way I watch films and the way I make films. But I do not think that having a film school degree is any sort of requirement for being able to make a wonderful movie.

Q. What drives you to constantly push the limits of innovation in your films?
A. I’m not really thinking about being innovative. I’m thinking about telling a good story. I guess that’s what drives me from one project to the next. Each time I look back, I just think of all the ways I could improve what I made, and when I look ahead, it’s with those improvements in mind, remembering to implement them in the next work. It’s all about working towards the creation of that one, great film that I hope I make some day.

Q. Will your next movie deal with some of the similar themes you addressed in your first film, in particular, corruption and the modern day issues? What is your next work?
A. Perhaps. Corruption has a way of bleeding into different aspects of life so even if I don’t set out to make a film about corruption per se, I guess there is a good chance that I might touch upon it in some way, shape or form.
Hopefully, something set in Calcutta. I’ve never shot in my hometown and I am really itching to. Growing up here made me fall in love with performance and art and movies and I really want to create something here.

Q. Would you say that studying in film schools abroad has made you a better filmmaker?
A. I would say that studying in the film school that I did, in the time in my life that I did, in the city that I did have all very strongly contributed to the way I watch films and the way I make films. But I do not think that having a film school degree is any sort of requirement for being able to make a wonderful movie.

Q. From a storytelling perspective, has the advancement in technology and social media platforms resulted in better movies?
A. Probably not…? I feel like it boils down to who is handling that technology and what they are trying to say. A Trip To The Moon (1902) is a brilliant movie. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017) is also a brilliant movie.

Q. You seem to be very careful about how you choose your stories. What’s the mark of a good story for you?
A. The emotional journey of the characters. That really is the be all and end all to me.

Q. Why did you decide to put your movie on Amazon Prime? What is your take on VOD and online streaming platforms like amazon prime, Netflix, etc?
A. In theory, I love the experience of watching a film in a theatre but in practice, it usually amounts to bad sound and/or bad projection and/or fellow audience members who are doing a whole bunch of things – talking, laughing, texting, eating, breathing – just way too loudly for me. With VOD I get to control the environment in which I watch content and I love that. More importantly, I have 24/7 access to a whole bunch of content that I would never have the chance to see otherwise. I’m a fan.

Q. What is something that you have learnt as an independent filmmaker over the years?
A. Don’t censor yourself.

 

Watch the trailer of The Hungry

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