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‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ – turning the stage into a slum

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ – turning the stage into a slum

November 3 2014

Playwright David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s award-winning non-fiction book, ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ turns the stage into a slum to powerful and revealing effect…

By Anila Dhami

SITTING in the front row of Stage Door (a rehearsal room) at the National Theatre in London, I pre-determined feeling like the foreigners who arrive at Mumbai airport scarcely separated from the Annawadi slum by a commercial sign that reads ‘Beautiful Forever’.

But the adaptation of Boo’s book portrays so vividly the emotions of the characters, it represents how the fine line between the rich and poor goes beyond the sign that separates them; emphasising the irony of how close the rich live to the poor and their similarities – yet how big the economic divide is.

KATHERINE BOO’s book, ‘Behind The Beautiful Forevers’ derives its title from an advertising hoarding close to the Mumbai slum of Annawadi, whose inhabitants she interviewed with the help of translators.
It won the National Book Award for non-fiction in America in 2012 and Boo is a Pulitzer prize winner.
A staff writer for 'The New Yorker', she wanted to document the tumultuous changes occurring in India after 2005, when the economy grew at rates of eight per cent and above and chose to focus on the lives of people who lived in this slum very close to Mumbai Airport. She believed it represented the intersection between the old India and the new one - and the potential journey from abject poverty to a dignified life but the truth of it was starker and more troubling. Boo was in India as it is the birthplace of her husband Sunil Khilnani, author and Avantha professor and director, King’s College London’s India Institute.

The tensions between Hindus and Muslims are no secret either. Meera Syal’s character Zehrunisa Husain shouts about how she is investing in her house to prove that Muslims are not trash, while she is reprimanded for her use of language because she is a woman.

The position of women and their bodies is a stark theme. Fatima, Zehrunisa’s neighbour, is regarded an animal for being crippled and so she sleeps with men because it is her own choice and makes her feel she is beautiful, using her body to overcome the prejudice against being physically disabled.

She also argues with the Husains about the development of their house which highlights the economic tensions between the people in the slum.

After reading the book, my main concern was authenticity. The book itself has multiple layers where Boo did not understand the language of the people in the slums, so had a translator. It has now gone through the eyes of playwright David Hare and director Rufus Norris and then through the actors.

A myriad of representations litter the play, from murders disguised as ‘non-culpable illnesses’ to put the slum boys in their place to highlighting the corrupt legal and justice system where money can buy power.

However, the play is not lost in its translation or the multiple layers that form it. In fact, it is more authentic than ever. In the book, there is some distance between us and the characters. Boo as a writer may consciously distance herself from the characters because they are real, and some end up dead.

btbfadjIn the play, the actors and actresses vividly portray the characters and therefore the distance is bridged. I was taken from laughter to sadness so swiftly that the raw emotions that were provoked were a constant reminder of how the people in the slums were so alike to us. As director Rufus said, during a short Q&A with journalists: “People in poverty are as complex and rich as we are”.

The cast have also taken part in workshops to ensure they capture exactly what Boo saw first-hand and they contact her for direction. Actor Vincent Ebrahim said: “It is about the accuracy of the human being, not the play”.

The overlap between one of the world’s most deprived areas and one of the plushest is something Boo wanted to convey. I think the play takes this further by conveying how there are no distinctions between the rich and poor, when it comes to emotions which essentially make us human.

  • Behind The Beautiful Forevers‘, by David Hare at the National Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX. Tel:020 7452 3000 From Monday, November 12-April 12 2015 – not daily, for ticket and performance details please check National Theatre tickets

Main picture: Meera Syal (Zehrunisa Husain) by Richard Hubert Smith

*Anila Dhami was shortlisted in the Outstanding Young Journalist category of the Asian Media Awards 2014. You can connect with her on twitter

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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