The National Theatre has announced dates for the stage adaptation of one of the most powerful and insightful books about India in recent years.
‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ is based American journalist Katherine Boo’s extraordinary investigation into life in Mumbai’s Annawadi slum and will begin its first run at the Olivier Theatre at the National beginning 10 November.
Adapted by BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning British playwright David Hare, the play – which shares the title with the book – is directed by Rufus Norris, the acclaimed young film and theatre director.
‘Goodness Gracious Me’ star Meera Syal leads an impressive and eclectic cast with roots from across South Asia, including Hiran Abeysekera, Esh Alladi, Nathalie Armin, Pal Aron, Tia-Lana Chinapyel, Vincent Ebrahim, Sartaj Garewal, Mariam Haque, Thusitha Jayasundera, Muzz Khan, Ranjit Krishnamma, Manjeet Mann, Nikita Mehta, Anjli Mohindra, Tia Palamathanan, Bharti Patel, Ronak Patani, Chook Sibtain, Anneika Rose, Gavi Singh Chera, Stephanie Street, Anjana Vasan, Assad Zaman and Shane Zaza.
Syal plays Zehrunisa, a mother who embarks on a mission with her son Abdul to recycle enough rubbish to fund the building of their own dwelling.
Zehrunisa’s is but one of the myriad stories carefully collected and magnificently evoked by Katherine Boo in her National Award-winning book.
Boo, also a Pulitzer Prize winner and former South Asia correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, spent four years inside the slum and was praised for her unflinching portrayal of the poverty, degradation as well as the unique sense of community that pervades slum life in India’s bustling commercial and cultural capital.
The name of the book was inspired by a billboard advertising one of Mumbai’s innumerable new luxury residential developments with the catch phrase: “Beautiful Forever. Forever Beautiful”.
Boo was inspired not by the city’s upwardly-mobile Middle Classes snapping up shiny new apartments but by the millions who lived among the rotting sewage and despair of the temporary dwellings behind the billboard, in places such as the sprawling Dharavi and Annawadi.
Built in the early 1990’s, Annawadi is said to have grown out of a squatter camp set up by labourers working to build Mumbai’s international airport.
The book is a riveting journey through the mountains of waste and the unbearable squalor in which three thousand people live, in alarmingly close proximity and a startling look at not only the growing inequities that continue to blight the ‘India Growth Story’ but also the hope and sense-of-purpose that abounds among the least fortunate in Indian society.
“Behind The Beautiful Forevers gives the audience an important insight into the complex world of slum politics and power struggles that blight and affect so many lives.
“What is so often forgotten is that behind the slum walls, there are some highly aspirational individuals with inspiring stories of achievement and success, and this is something that must be celebrated.
“All of our roles are inspired by the people Katherine Boo so beautifully honoured in her book and we hope as a company to bring the same passionate commitment and truth to their stories.
“Zehrunisa Husain is a loving powerful mother who had to fight unimaginable struggles to keep her family together and it is a privilege to be given the opportunity as an actress to recreate her experience in this amazing play.”
Given the multitude of stories in Boo’s book, a theatre adaptation – as opposed one for film or TV – would certainly have posed a not-inconsiderable number of challenges.
Director Norris, said: “It was not only a creative challenge but also a physical one.
“Trying to get the enterprise, chaos and humanity of a slum onto the stage in a way that honours the reality has been a fascinating task.
“They are a wonderful cast and crew, David Hare has scripted the production brilliantly and I’m looking forward to the opening night. I hope that everyone who comes feels we have done justice to the original book by Katherine Boo.”
‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ is at the National Theatre from 10 November. For tickets, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk