Sunday, November 23, 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

4/5 rating
Behind the Beautiful Forevers | National Theatre

Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist went to a slum in Mumbai next to the airport called Annawadi and spent three years there living and learning with the slum-dwellers who are mostly rag-pickers. After her return to New York, she wrote a book, a non-fiction narrative about the lives of the people. I haven't read it.

The book was adapted into a play by David Hare who spent time with Katherine and then in Annawadi. It's playing in London at the National Theatre,  Nov-Apr. I went to it this weekend. The audience was largely non-Indian (not even of origin) and also for some reason the average age was much higher as well, say 50. So the people sitting next to us got an interesting perspective I guess.

The first half was very well done. The choice of music was the highlight. The sets were used beautifully to create various effects like a flight landing close by and at one point it literally rains plastic bottles. Every character was so full in spite of only a few dialogues for some of the smaller ones. Most of them managed to maintain an Indian accent and those who could not were largely cast in the roles of the so-called keepers of the law which sort of makes sense but gives it a pre-Independence era feel. The story itself is hard hitting showing how people live in the slums and their little fights all the time. And corruption was shown at every level which I believe is how it happens.

During the interval the lady to next to me, a much older British woman, said that it's really upsetting that the corruption is so deep-rooted and that the police are so powerful. And another older British man asked K if isn't a bit too exaggerated. Well it is upsetting if you didn't know about it all your life and suddenly find out all at once in the span of an hour and it wasn't really exaggerated. But the play struggled to balance the truth because it tried to address and show case too many issued and it became either too much to take that you don't want any more of it or too unbelievable that you could write off. A girl who is not allowed education, a girl who has to stay married to a man with a another woman, a woman who makes a living sleeping with men while her husband drinks himself to slumber, the rag pickers who get beaten up by the police every time they have a run-in.

The second half was much darker. The story takes a turn for the worse and the characters get deeper into trouble, all of them. Unfortunately, there are no more special effects left to show us and no more awe factors. There are a few scenes still that show the creativity of the director like the busy roads of Mumbai. However, details for the same characters that the first half spent so much time investing in building them up did not find any time later on. When the Hussains give away their only and good quilt for their dead neighbour it is neither heart-warming nor even noted properly by the audience. Final scene when the Hussains walk home with Abdul was not impactful due to a melodramatic and rather poor choice of words. While, it was a happy story at the end of it, it wasn't really a happy story at all. The story played up all the hardships but none of the little happy moments. It played up all the jugaad attitude where everyone is out to get everyone else to survive but none of the dependencies on each other that every community needs to survive in India.

I argued with K that it was pretty much like any Indian movie, at least any Tollywood movie - protagonist and family suffer due to societal issues and the ending is always happy with the protagonist coming out successfully. But K had a point, we take one issue out of the plethora of issues that the play showcased and actually find the story solving it and you end up a happy person.

The play was dark with only a very small pinch of hope. And it had absolutely nothing endearing, the lack of which I think, makes it an English play and not an Indian movie.


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