Behind The Beautiful Forevers brings Mumbai slum to London

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s brilliant depiction of life amid the trash pickers of a Mumbai slum, has now been adapted for the stage. We catch up with one of its lead characters and the creative team as its well-received London run continues.
From left, Mariam Haque, Thusitha Jayasundera and Meera Syal on stage during a performance in London. Courtesy Robert Hubert Smith / National Theater
From left, Mariam Haque, Thusitha Jayasundera and Meera Syal on stage during a performance in London. Courtesy Robert Hubert Smith / National Theater

The house lights go up at the National Theatre in London and the throbbing pulse of bhangra beats that have soundtracked the previous two-and-a-half-hours of life in a Mumbai slum finally fade away. Everywhere, the sell-out audience are quietly murmuring to each other, not quite sure what to make of David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s award-winning book Behind The Beautiful Forevers. It has been an evening of tragedy and comedy, vitality and brutality, poverty and pride. And Thusitha Jayasundera, who plays the character on which the play pivots, knows exactly how the audience feels. It’s how she feels, too.

“Sometimes at the end of this show I’m heart-broken and hollow,” says the 43-year-old actor famous for her roles in the British hospital drama Holby City and the stage version of War Horse. “And then there’s been other times where I’ve felt genuinely elated and joyous. I think David Hare is that kind of playwright. He’s deceptive: erudite and intellectual but if you give yourself over to his plays there’s a rich seam of emotion running through them, too.”

Hare is also, as Jayasundera points out, a white, middle-class British man. So it was always going to be intriguing to see how he would turn Boo’s intricate study of Mumbai slum Annawadi, which looked at everything from trash-picking to education to government corruption, into a satisfying drama. He’s done so by zeroing in on one of its most shocking elements, where Fatima Shaikh makes a false statement to the police about her neighbours, the Husains. Jayasundera, who plays Fatima, takes up the story.

“Fatima and Zehrunisa Husain [played by Meera Syal] are two Muslim mothers who feel marginalised within a largely Hindu community. They feel they have to club together. But Fatima is a damaged woman and, to be honest, not terribly likeable because of her incandescent temper. In the play, she overreacts massively to a hole made in her wall by the Husains, and, without giving too much away, bites the hand that feeds her quite spectacularly.”

In many of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, Fatima has been described as being driven by furious envy, but Jayasundera hopes there’s more to her than that, although she admits that it took a conversation with Boo to get to the heart of the character. In the wrong hands she’d be almost a pantomime villain – “a wailing banshee”, she says with a laugh – but Boo gave Jayasundera a valuable backstory to work with.

“Fatima is threatened, I think, by the feeling that she’s not as good as everybody else,” she says. “And Boo made me realise Fatima is damaged but not demented. But David was also keen that we brought our own understanding too, and I grew up in that area of the world. Living in Sri Lanka until I was nearly 19, I came across people like her, and I know how that expression of rage can look. Fatima’s story is flammable and emotional and you really have to concentrate as a performer to make sure it doesn’t topple over into caricature.”

If that sounds hard going – and Jayasundera is thoughtful, serious and passionate about her role – then it shouldn’t mask the real joie de vivre that runs through Behind The Beautiful Forevers. The young boys in the trash-picking industry who give the story its momentum are quick-witted, spirited and great fun. Abdul Husain’s desire to lead an honest life after a stretch in prison is heartwarming and moving. And the set is fantastic, a rotating depiction of Annawadi that is interrupted on occasion by the roar and shadow of a jet landing at the nearby airport. There’s a vivaciousness amid the detritus of slum life here – born out of the creative team flying to Mumbai to see and understand it for themselves.

“For me the start point of the play had to be a sense of the real situation,” says lighting designer Paule Constable. “My notes to myself about the lighting is that it had to be simple and honest, not pictorial or romanticised. I hope we captured a real sense of India and not an idea in someone’s head.”

In the end, that’s the real joy of Behind The Beautiful Forevers; it celebrates human spirit as much as mourning corruption and despair. But Jayasundera is keen that any message isn’t too prescriptive.

“It’s not really my job to tell people what the exact ‘point’ is,” she says. “But the hope is that we shine a light on a part of society which is touched upon in the news but rarely fully explored. I mean, our main characters are very young boys who essentially don’t have a future. So showing a story where a perfectly able and ingenious young person can’t get anywhere close to fulfilling their potential is important.”

Behind The Beautiful Forevers is at The National Theatre, London, until April 13. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: December 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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