Play review

In UK stage adaptation of 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers', spectacle triumphs over reality

British team has been less than successful in its effort to translate Katherine Boo's acclaimed non-fiction book into a compelling theatrical performance.

A light brown haze slowly but surely envelopes the stage as the audience fills into Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre in London. It is one of the first defining visual moments of director Rufus Norris's stage incarnation of Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book Behind the Beautiful Forevers – transporting the audience into the concrete-dust infused reality of a rapidly expanding megacity. On display are the sights of Annawadi, the Mumbai slum that was brought to the world's attention in 2012 by Boo’s stunning book, which contrasted the city's poverty with its growing economic prowess.

The rise of the 21st-century globalising city, the world-wide recession and the economic ambitions of upper-class India jostle for a central role in the narrative with the stories of Abdul, a garbage recycler; Asha, a rare female slumlord; Zehrunisa, Abdul's foul-mouthed but proud mother; Fatima, the one-leg laughing stock of the slum; Manju, Annawadi's soon-to-be-first-female college graduate; and finally, Annawadi itself, as a stage, a spectacle and a voyeur’s delight.

Boo's book presents a strong image of this location: a swirl of construction debris, a sewage lake, miserable shanties, colourful characters, airplanes roaring overhead, blinding glass buildings, aluminum fences, garbage and some more garbage. The National Theatre's renowned technical expertise brings Annawadi to life with all its drama of showering plastics, shadow-play airplane visuals and set changes involving its revolving stage. For all  practical purposes, this is what a slum looks and feels like.

The Slumdog Millionaire trap

But in this adaptation of Boo's book by playwright David Hare, the spectacle takes precedence over the narrative, falling into the Slumdog Millionaire abyss of recreating slums but disconnecting them from the lived experience of people who are different from us.

The play flails, for instance, when many of the British-Asian actors in the cast attempt to portray the residents of Annawadi in a hybrid Bambaiya-infused, almost unnatural English. For someone from Mumbai, the effort seems forced. It’s jarring, because the book made these language barriers seem irrelevant. Hare's script tries to faithfully recreate some of its nuances in the raw recreations of the fights between Fatima and Zehrunsia. But many of these attempts are thwarted by the casting:  British actor Chook Sibtain playing a Maharashtrian sub-inspector with his clear London-accent; the relatively clean-looking Hiran Abeysekera as a stunted 11-year-old Sunil, a choice made even more strange by the appearance of a six-pack when he does headstands; Shane Zaza as the inward-looking, shrunken Abdul repeatedly trying and yet falling just short in his attempt to bring Abdul to life.

But then again, some other actors shine, both those with major parts and others in smaller roles. Meera Syal captivates as Zehrunisa, Stephanie Street sparkles as Asha, Anjana Vasan’s Manju, who tries hard to grasp Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, forms the delicate idealistic bridge between the educated rich and the poor, while Thusitha Jayasundera’s Fatima is effervescent and all-consuming, appearing both hard-edged and empathetic. Muzz Khan as the havaldar is perfectly caricatured in his comic cluelessness, while Mariam Haque as the female havaldar is a waif-like power-wielder. Nathalie Armin as the power-broker Poornima Paikrao drives her knife down our throats.

Could the grand spectacle of contrasts have been accomplished without projecting this multi-dimensional mass of poor folk against the cardboard cut-out of the “first class people”, as Asha puts it? Can the lived experience of a Mumbai slum be recreated for an audience that can only visualise rather than experience it?  Designer Katrina Lindsay draws from strong reference points in the book and existing ideas of Mumbai slum glam. Scene changes are punctuated by jarring Bollywood numbers, the auto-rickshaw and the tempo make guest appearances, while police stations, government hospitals and court houses have also been recreated.

As a work emerging from the verbatim/documentary theatre tradition, and the fact that it draws from Boo's deeply immersive reportage, this fast-paced adaptation is faithful in its promise to bring to the stage the actual words of real people.  In the end, however, it might leave some cold. You empathise with the characters, but don’t feel close to them. Lessons are learnt, slum life surveyed and enlightenment perhaps dawns on those for whom this gritty world is new. But for an audience unfamiliar with the context of slum life, watching it on stage is at best an arms-length experience.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Movies can make you leap beyond what is possible

Movies have the power to inspire us like nothing else.

Why do we love watching movies? The question might be elementary, but one that generates a range of responses. If you had to visualise the world of movies on a spectrum, it would reflect vivid shades of human emotions like inspiration, thrill, fantasy, adventure, love, motivation and empathy - generating a universal appeal bigger than of any other art form.

“I distinctly remember when I first watched Mission Impossible I. The scene where Tom Cruise suspends himself from a ventilator to steal a hard drive is probably the first time I saw special effects, stunts and suspense combined so brilliantly.”  

— Shristi, 30

Beyond the vibe of a movie theatre and the smell of fresh popcorn, there is a deeply personal relationship one creates with films. And with increased access to movies on television channels like &flix, Zee Entertainment’s brand-new English movie channel, we can experience the magic of movies easily, in the comforts of our home.

The channel’s tagline ‘Leap Forth’ is a nod to the exciting and inspiring role that English cinema plays in our lives. Comparable to the pizazz of the movie premieres, the channel launched its logo and tagline through a big reveal on a billboard with Spider-Man in Mumbai, activated by 10,000 tweets from English movies buffs. Their impressive line-up of movies was also shown as part of the launch, enticing fans with new releases such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Life.

“Edgar Wright is my favourite writer and director. I got interested in film-making because of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead. I love his unique style of storytelling, especially in his latest movie Baby Driver.”

— Siddhant, 26

Indeed, movies can inspire us to ‘leap forth’ in our lives. They give us an out-of-this-world experience by showing us fantasy worlds full of magic and wonder, while being relatable through stories of love, kindness and courage. These movies help us escape the sameness of our everyday lives; expanding our imagination and inspiring us in different ways. The movie world is a window to a universe that is full of people’s imaginations and dreams. It’s vast, vivid and populated with space creatures, superheroes, dragons, mutants and artificial intelligence – making us root for the impossible. Speaking of which, the American science fiction blockbuster, Ghost in the Shell will be premiering on the 24th of June at 1:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M, only on &flix.

“I relate a lot to Peter Parker. I identified with his shy, dorky nature as well as his loyalty towards his friends. With great power, comes great responsibility is a killer line, one that I would remember for life. Of all the superheroes, I will always root for Spiderman”

— Apoorv, 21

There are a whole lot of movies between the ones that leave a lasting impression and ones that take us through an exhilarating two-hour-long ride. This wide range of movies is available on &flix. The channel’s extensive movie library includes over 450 great titles bringing one hit movie premiere every week. To get a taste of the exciting movies available on &flix, watch the video below:


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of &flix and not by the Scroll editorial team.