The National Theatre – away from the glitz of the West End – has a reputation for putting on gritty and provocative productions that challenge audiences, and it certainly doesn’t get grittier, more provocative or challenging than its latest, a play set in a Mumbai slum and based on arguably the most important non-fiction book about India of recent times.
Following several years of development, the NT will this week stage the premier of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’, David Hare’s adaptation of the acclaimed book of the same name by American investigative journalist Katherine Boo.
The book tells the extraordinary stories of the residents of Mumbai’s Annawadi, a “sumpy plug of slum” – as Boo herself describes it – located adjacent to the city’s international airport and several luxury hotels.
Boo ‘s account of life inside Annawadi was the result of four years of intense research and being part of the close-knit community inside the slum.
The book is a riveting journey through slum politics and intrigues, the mountains of waste and the unbearable squalor in which three thousand people live in alarmingly close proximity to each other.
The author was praised for her unsentimental portrayal of Annawadi’s hard-working and quick-witted residents who live in equally startling proximity to some of the wealthiest people on earth, not to mention Bollywood stars and India’s burgeoning new Middle Classes.
Boo was reportedly first approached for an adaptation of the book by Scott Rudin – the American super-producer behind everything from the ‘Social Network’ and ‘The Queen’ to ‘The Book of Mormon’ – who then approached the BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning Hare.
The theatre adaptation is directed by Rufus Norris and features a galaxy of British Asian talent including Meera Syal, Vincent Ebrahim, Mariam Haque, Muzz Khan, Thusitha Jayasundera, Anjana Vasan, Pal Aron, Shane Zaza, Esh Alladi and Stephanie Street.
The UKAsian was invited to a rehearsal of the play and despite being held inside a room somewhere inside the labyrinthine basement of the National Theatre, the preview did provide an idea of the immense challenges faced by Norris.
Boo had a tremendous knack for detail and was unflinching in her portrayal of not only the squalor inside Annawadi but also the myriad challenges its residents faced on a daily basis: from the disease-ridden oceans of sewage on which their temporary houses were built all the way to the ethnic tensions that frequently grips the city.
Norris however, says that a challenge far more staggering than replicating Annawadi on a stage on the Southbank was portraying the characters behind the grime and the temporary shacks.
“Like any epic new play it has been a challenge to find a way of realizing the story on the stage”, the director says.
“The greater challenge for us was to reveal the complexity of the characters. These are people who have every strand of complexity in their lives that we all have – the complications of family, work, neighbours and so on. It’s just that they are in a different situation.
“You can easily say these are poor people therefore we can patronize them and make them appear exotic. The main challenge was to subvert that and to show that they are as rich in thought and humanity as we all are”.
Taking centre stage is a large and symbolic set of scales, representing the great dichotomy of Mumbai.
“We will be playing this to people who will be travelling to Mumbai a lot and they will see the slums and the blue tarpaulins and all of that”, Norris adds.
“This is also a way of humanizing what’s underneath those tarps. To make you realize that you can’t have what you have, particularly in a city like Mumbai, without someone else doing something at the end of the scale”.
Boo’s book is resplendent in the sheer variety and number of characters but Hare has, for obvious reasons, pared down the number of central players.
At the heart of the play’s Annawadi is Abdul (Shane Zaza) – a quick-witted teenage garbage-picker who Boo was particularly fond of – and his even more resourceful, if foul-mouthed, mother Zehrunisa (Syal).
Other memorable characters from the book – including the one-legged Fatima, and Manju, the young girl hoping to become Annawadi’s first college graduate, also feature prominently.
Boo was inspired to write about the people of the slum because she hated the sentimentality that was attached to most foreigners’ portrayals of Indian slums.
The character’s’ resourcefulness however, cannot hide their often tragic circumstances, the appalling conditions in which they live and how they are representative of the vast majority of people in India: a nuclear-armed economic superpower which recently sent a $80 million probe to Mars but where a staggering 600 million people don’t have access to a toilet.
It is the sort of portrayal that will doubtless irk many champions of the shiny new, ‘upwardly mobile’ India particularly when it’s been put together by a uniquely British institution such as the National Theatre.
Director Norris and his actors however, refused to allow those considerations to weigh on their minds.
“We all feel an incredible responsibility because we are portraying a real story and real people”, says Pal Aron.
“My first job as an actor is to be as honest and faithful to the character that I play and to the story as a whole. If some people are offended by what they see then personally I can only apologize for that.
“But I suspect they won’t be and that they will see a heart and a soul to the characters and the story and hopefully that’s what they will see”, Aron adds.
It’s a sentiment shared by Norris.
“This play isn’t about Britain’s colonial history. That certainly has an impact and a undertone to it. I don’t think it’s critical of India per se.
“Of course there will be those who say that you can’t throw stones whilst living in glass houses but then if we are going to think about offending each and every person’s sensibilities, then the National Theatre would not be able to really put on any play, about any culture.
“Katherine Boo was the most diligent researcher. She checked, double checked and triple checked every single thing that she talks about in that book. It’s completely water-tight.
“There’s nothing that David has made up here or that he hasn’t drawn from that resource. And there’s nothing in that resource that is not fact.
“In that context, do we have a right to look at the whole world from our position as a story-telling organization? Yes we do. “
‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ is at the National Theatre from 10 November. For tickets, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk