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#Moving: ‘Behind The Beautiful Forevers’ comes to the National Theatre

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

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#StandUpSister!: Bold, candid and moving, Nadia Manzoor’s ‘Burq Off!’ is a comic delight

It takes guts to write, produce and perform a comedy show lampooning your family, friends and community.

But courage is one thing British Pakistani comic, Nadia P. Manzoor, has plenty of. 

One of few Muslim females to take up comedy performance as a career choice, Manzoor naturally garners public and media interest.  Fortunately, her talent justifies the attention.  Five minutes into her autobiographical act, 'Burq Off!', it’s clear you’re in for a fun and thought-provoking ride.

While using personal anecdotes as the foundation for comedy may not be a ground-breaking concept, Manzoor’s flair for combining elements of theatre, dance, monologue, mimicry and stand-up comedy more than makes for it. 

Single-handedly playing 21 characters, ranging from her traditional parents, angry twin brother and English best friend to the dreaded Arabic teacher and 'maulvi saheb' whom she feared more than God, Manzoor’s hilarious delivery and knack for accents wins you over.

No topic is considered taboo or enactment too embarrassing.

Whether it’s revealing her shock at finding her conservative father’s saucy burlesque magazines, the awkwardness of wearing a 'burqini' on the Costa del Sol or losing her virginity to her Irish boyfriend, Manzoor’s truthfulness adds authenticity.

By her own admittance, Manzoor is a rebel who spent the majority of her upbringing being yelled at for disgracing the family name and izzat (honour). 

It’s no surprise therefore that dinner table banter with her parents provides the main fodder for jokes in Burq Off. 

Manzoor’s dreams of becoming an astronaut at five years of age are thwarted early on by her Abu (father) who insists her ultimate goal should be to become a wife and “make a man very happy”.  Similarly, her Ammi (mother) teaching her to refer to her vagina as her “shame shame” and to hide the contours of her body while out walking, to avoid the lustful gaze of men, leads to amusing consequences and insights into cultural expectations.

Equating the sense of liberation Manzoor felt wearing a burqa in Mecca to later donning a bikini in Marbella leads to her questioning whether true freedom lies in modesty or nudity?  The point is skilfully made through the medium of dance rather than overbearing dialogue. 

Similarly refreshing is the subtle emotional undertone bought out in Manzoor’s relationship with her caring mother and the suffering of a family tragedy.  Melodrama is thankfully avoided.

You don’t have to be young, female or Muslim to relate to the cultural and religious clashes Manzoor encountered growing up as a “Paki in Hertfordshire”.   Living between two opposing worlds and moral perspectives brings with it the confusion and stress many teenagers feel growing up.  The necessity of lying to families in order to experience the kind of life and freedom desired by young Asians is a point well made by Manzoor.  What’s also clear is the futility of these little white lies that inevitably grow to become causes of personal conflict.

The struggle to be heard and for ones' opinions and aspirations to matter form the crux of Manzoor’s performance.

By inserting facts related to problems faced by Muslim women she effectively explores issues of gender, identity and sexuality. Simple statistics related to forced marriage and honour killings provoke thought without being a downer.

While the stage backdrop of colourful saris may be clichéd, what is impressive is Manzoor’s skillful use of a simple red dupatta as her main prop.  Transforming the fabric into a range of items, including a hijab, bikini, boob tube, shawl, doll, telephone and newspaper, illustrates her creativity.

At a bum-numbing 90 minutes without an interval, 'Burq Off!' could do with a trim in duration, perhaps removing one of the numerous outbursts of dance.

However, one thing is for sure; while the audience may fidget in their seats to regain sensation, the physical energy demanded of Manzoor in performing Burq Off  is far greater and ultimately impressive.

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Sri Lanka’s ‘Moving Images’ now available in full online

‘Moving Images’, the stunning audio, video and photographic portraits on life in post war SrI Lanka, commissioned by Ground views has now been made available in their entirety online.     These high-definition productions, the country’s first, range from portraits of resilience from the war ravaged Jaffna and reflections on …

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