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#UKAsianReview: 'Behind The Beautiful Forevers' is a great theatrical experience

During the interval of this riveting production I found myself drawn into an all-too-familiar debate about the unease with which Indians deal with the harsh truths about their country’s deep social divide.

It was the same debate that flared up when Danny Boyle audaciously took his camera into the slums of Mumbai with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

The stage version of Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ takes that audacity a step further with a live audience.

From the moment go, we know we are in for a special kind of ride as plastic bottles rain from the sky.

The story is simple enough, about the Husain family whose matriarch, adeptly played by the talented Meera Syal, is determined to make her family’s life in the slums a little better.

As she succeeds in saving enough to get closer to her dream of a concrete roof over their heads, her entire world comes crashing down around her as she is confronted with the deep-rooted corruption of a creaking old system.

The play is an extremely canny portrayal of a wide range of issues that a modernising India is struggling to cope with.

The religious divide that makes Muslims the instant suspects in any crime is set against the irony of an easy communal harmony at the lower rungs of society, where the lack of money proves a kind of comforting equaliser.

Middle class apathy is played out with sheer brilliance every time the shadow of a plane heads for the runway of the National Theatre.

While the production design is a star in its own right, Syal as Zehrunisa is joined by a whole host of talented co-stars who bring the Mumbai slum of Annawadi alive miles away on the banks of the Thames.

Thusitha Jayasundera deserves a special mention for her dual performance as “one-leg” Fatima and corrupt Judge Chauhan.

Besides the sense of unease at the stark realities on stage proving difficult to shake off, this production is a must-see simply as a great theatrical experience.

After its run at the National, I just hope it can find its way into some of the plush theatres of Mumbai and New Delhi to try and shake out some of that middle class apathy.

As Shane Zaza’s Abdul Husain would say, we can always hope for the better.

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ is on at the National Theatre in London until April 2015.

 

 

Aditi Khanna is the London-based Senior Correspondent for the Press Trust of India, Editor of India Inc, and president of the Indian Journalists' Association.

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