Theatre Review Behind The Beautiful Forevers

Tales from Mumbai's slums based on real people

Posted: 27.11.14

Based on the book by Katherine Boo, Directed by David Hare, National Theatre London
y Lubjana Matin-Scammell 

Neighbourly disputes, old Hindu-Muslim resentment and a slum girl trying to improve herself by reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway are all part of daily life in Annawadi. This is a slum community in Mumbai’s outskirts between the airport and luxury international hotels, the underbelly of fast growing India. Residents here made a legitimate income in the rubbish recycling and collecting business which is inextricably interlinked to the global economy yet their lives are infected by corruption from the power systems outside leading to them facing infinite injustices.

David Hare’s (The Hours and The Reader) new play is an adaptation of Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction writing, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum first published in 2012. Katherine, a journalist who writes for the New Yorker spent nearly four years living in Annawadi investigating, documenting and recording the lives of the residents. She was very aware of the genre of poverty writing which either over sensationalised or sentimentalised the poor so wanted to present the multifaceted activities of slum communities and its residents in a new way as people who are not passive. The community she discovers and represents is a microcosm of activity organised with its own hierarchy where respect is earned and pride is taken in the skill of rubbish sorting.

Although the story follows Abdul who holds his family together financially, the play zooms in on three different families in the slum which are headed by matriarchs. Zehrunisa is a hardworking woman and mother to Abdul. Asha is the corrupt slumlord money lending ‘go to woman’ who will go to any lengths so that her daughter graduates from college. Fatima is the emotional and stigmatised mother also known as ‘One Foot’ who immolates herself conveying the lengths people will go to be heard. Much of the humour comes from these three women who heckle and attack each other with profanities in English. The subplot follows two girls Manuj and Meena who secretly meet in the slum’s communal toilets and confide in each other through the partitioned toilet walls about a different life outside of the slum.

Mumbai is transported to the theatre through a revolving stage switching from the slum to the hospital and local police station. The city’s hustle and bustle is mirrored through the changing scenes of moving signposts and billboards and the all too realistic low flying shadow of a jumbo jet departing from a runway which captures the slum’s location underneath the airport.

The casting is immeasurable with its unique ensemble of respected British Asian actors. Meera Syal gives an exceptional performance as Zehrunisa but her presence does not take over the stage. Vincent Ebrahim (The Kumars at No.42) is Karam the old father who takes pride in his work and humbly states ‘I'm in plastics' while Shane Zaza (Doctors) is their devout son Abdul.

Comparisons with Slumdog Millionaire are inevitable especially in terms of portraits of slum dwellers and what they are doing to get out of their communities. The play tells us about their ordinary and remarkable everyday lives and asks questions about how to be good in a corrupt world. This is not a sing-along Bollywoodesque production trying to offer an alternative story to the mainstream of Mumbai, it's a theatrical production in its own right though there are numerable cinematic references. Hare’s attempt to adapt non-fiction onto the stage is ambitious resulting in a production of epic proportions: Behind The Beautiful Forevers is simply a brilliant play and well worth the watch whether that's at the National Theatre or when it's streamed at cinemas next Spring.

Almost half the seats for every performance of the play are Travelex £15 tickets. The rest are at £25 and £35 and the show runs until  13th April 2015. Buy tickets here
Behind the Beautiful Forevers will be broadcast live on 12th March 2015 to over 550 UK ">

Images: Richard Hurbert Smith



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