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There are more slumdogs than millionaires in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a panoramic drama about life and death in a Mumbai shanty town, adapted by British stage heavyweight David Hare from the 2012 bestseller by Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker staff writer Katherine Boo. The director is incoming National Theatre chief Rufus Norris, who is clearly aiming to make a big introductory splash as he gears up to replace Nicholas Hytner next April.
A kind of non-fiction novel set in Annawadi, an illegal slum township on the edge of Mumbai airport, Boo’s book offered a prize-winning portrait of a volatile contemporary India where rapid economic growth collides with extreme poverty. Hare and Norris have certainly transformed the material into a widescreen epic, with a running time of almost three hours. But their adaptation also feels unfocused and ungainly at times, replacing the author’s forensic reportage with broad strokes, muddled messages and episodic pacing.
Like the book, this ambitious adaptation is teeming with protagonists, featuring upwards of 30 characters. But a handful of key players dominate the narrative. Chief among them is Abdul (Shane Zaza), an entrepreneurial Muslim teenager who illegally trades in recycled trash collected for him by a team of young scavengers, notably Sunil (Hiran Abeysekera). Abdul’s precarious financial success has earned him prized status as breadwinner for his family, headed by his fearsome mother Zehrunisa (played by British TV regular Meera Syal). But it has also caused dangerous levels of envy among his fellow slum-dwellers.
Social-climbing fixer Asha (Stephanie Street) is an activist with the right-wing Shiv Sena party, cheerfully embracing the ingrained corruption of Indian municipal politics in her bid to become Annawadi’s first female slumlord. Her empire is built on shameless financial exploitation of her poorer neighbors, but also involves some grueling private sacrifices. In the ghetto, everything and everyone is for sale. Asha’s headstrong daughter Manju (Anjana Vasan) is a more sympathetic figure, planning her escape from poverty through a college education, and sharing her mocking critiques of the incomprehensible Virginia Woolf novels that she reads to improve her English.
The dark heart of the drama is Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera), a one-legged woman with a prodigious sexual appetite and a volcanic temper. Wounded by a lifetime of rejection and mockery, Fatima is highly sensitive to any perceived slight. When a petty neighborhood feud escalates into physical conflict, she commits an act of self-destructive revenge that unleashes the full arsenal of economic and social injustice against Abdul and his family. Their Kafka-esque, financially ruinous struggles with crooked police officers and legal officials take up much of the play’s second act.
Katrina Lindsay‘s versatile stage design presents a ramshackle slum vista on one side and a multi-purpose low-rise office building on the other. Norris adds some striking theatrical flourishes including a blizzard of plastic bottles, a monsoon downpour, a clever audio-visual simulation of airliners passing overhead, and one character’s dramatic leap from a high gantry through the stage floor. The director also includes some inevitable Bollywood-style dance moves, with the Hindi pop hit “Om Shanti Om” serving as a musical motif. It makes for a lively spectacle, but something of a tired cliche in Western depictions of India.
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Hare can be forgiven for failing to distill all of Boo’s insights into modern India, with its complex and often contradictory intersections between ancient caste rules, ethnic tensions and internecine turf wars among different migrant groups. Compiled over three years in Annawadi, her book is an unflinching ground-level examination of structural inequality under a system where human lives are often worth less than recycled garbage. The play seems to settle on a more sanitized, simplified message about salvation through individual goodness. A little fuzzy, but easier to present on stage.
More questionably, Hare also spices up Boo’s dialogue with an abundance of swearwords, nudging the book’s tragicomic tone towards bawdy farce. Even if this shift injects some welcome levity into potentially grim subject matter, it also sits incongruously with the story’s darker interludes, which include the brutal murder of a petty thief and the suicide of a teenage girl forced into marriage with a man she hates. Scenes of sexual exploitation, casual violence and lethal self-harm lack the harrowing power they should have had.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers is a commendable attempt to dramatize a topical non-fiction story on a grand, Dickensian scale. It’s certainly refreshing to see so many South Asian characters, many of them female, on a major London stage. That said, this production sometimes sags under the weight of its sprawling subject matter and huge cast. If this is a preemptive taster for his upcoming tenure as artistic director at the National, Norris has made a bold statement. But as a stand-alone project, it ultimately feels more technically impressive than emotionally or intellectually engaging.
Cast: Meera Syal, Shane Zaza, Anjani Vasan, Thusitha Jayasundera, Hiran Abeysekera, Stephanie Street, Assad Zaman, Sartaj Garewal
Playwright: David Hare, based on the book by Katherine Boo
Director: Rufus Norris
Set designer: Katrina Lindsay
Costume designer: Sabine Le Maitre
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Fight director: Kate Waters
Dialect coach: Zabarjad Salam
Presented by the National Theatre, in association with Scott Rudin
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