William Shakespeare’s first tragedy, “Titus Andronicus,” has never been among his most revered plays, but there’s a primal appeal to the raw, blood-caked nastiness of its plotting and the themes of revenge and political treachery that would resurface in later works. Julie Taymor’s conceptually audacious 1999 film version collapsed multiple eras into a Grand Guignol epic about the savagery at the heart of human history, but made few changes to the text. For “The Hungry,” writer-director Bornila Chatterjee tosses out the dialogue and updates the story to an estate in modern-day India, where a marriage of convenience around a business partnership turns into an all-consuming internecine battle. Yet the conceit is narrow and banal, losing not only the poetry of Shakespeare’s work but its populist charge, too, which is weakened by yawning gaps in the storytelling. Ultra-violence and incoherence stand to make a fraught marriage in worldwide markets.
Photographed with the glossy lushness of a fashion-magazine spread, “The Hungry” opens with a prologue so confusing that it takes multiple flashbacks to clarify the action. With the Ahuja and Joshi families poised to unite through a marriage with corporate implications, the scion of the Ahuja family, Tathigat (Naseeruddin Shah), throws a New Year’s Eve party that goes tragically awry. The son of the bride-to-be turns up dead in a bathtub, wrists slashed, in an apparent suicide attempt. But the staging of the scene, combined with peculiarities in the suicide note, lead the young man’s mother, Tulsi Joshi (Tisca Chopra), to suspect foul play.
Two years later, after Tathigat returns from an unrelated prison sentence for alleged financial chicanery, the wedding between Tulsi and Tathigat’s dim-witted son Sonny (Arjun Gupta) is back on, but Tulsi’s intentions have darkened considerably. With her other son Chirag (Antonio Aakeel) in reluctant attendance, Tulsi and a secret confidant begin carrying out revenge on the Ahuja family, but their plans are complicated by various miscues and a growing awareness on Tathigat’s part that she knows more than her placid smile suggests. Thus begins a grisly confrontation in the shadows that contrasts sharply with the flowery splendor of a wedding weekend — and a decadent feast that Tathigat is preparing personally.
The minor twist on Shakespeare is that Tulsi, a stand-in for the diabolical empress Tamora, becomes a more sympathetic figure in “The Hungry.” While Chatterjee reveals the corrosive and self-defeating effects of Tulsi’s plans for revenge, there’s no question that her cause is the relatively righteous one, compared to Tathigat’s more ruthless assertions of power. Whatever nuance can be gleaned from her moral struggles is negated, however, by on-the-nose dialogue like “I’m fighting the darkness. I’m losing.” For Chatterjee to pull off her upending of Shakespeare’s play, it’s critical for Tulsi’s revenge to register as a tragedy of the soul as much as the bodies of those she loves, but the film never gets beyond surface machinations.
As Tathigat, Bollywood veteran Shah (who had a key role in Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding”) relishes the opportunity to give his gentle, avuncular screen presence a sinister edge. Tathigat nurses the image of a benevolent patriarch and captain of industry, but the rottenness at his core surfaces with little provocation. When he suddenly lays into the staff for their paltry display of marigolds, Shah plays the answer to this minor offense with a distinctly homicidal edge. “Titus Andronicus” thrives on villainy, and Shah seems to relish the opportunity to soak in it.
Yet one delectable performance cannot make up for the thinness of Chatterjee’s reconsideration of Shakespeare or the hiccups in the staging, which makes even this pared-down adaptation seem needlessly muddled. Chatterjee and her DP, Nick Cooke, supply plenty of beautiful colors and shafts of light, but whole scenes have been cut together without much care about how one shot relates to the next. The multiple revenge schemes in “Titus Andronicus” require the sort of clear, careful articulation that “The Hungry” never manages from the start.