The play Behind the Beautiful Forevers is based on the book of the same title written by Katherine Boo. It was adapted into a play by David Hare. It focuses on the lives of two matriarchal families living in a slum- Annawadi, which is just next to the Mumbai airport. The slum is surrounded by luxury hotels on all sides, while it is full of trash that has kept on pilling and accumulating over the years. These families in the play largely represent the majority of the families in Mumbai. Families that have been let down by the systems that were put in place to be of assistance to them, the hatred of the poor towards one another and the resilience with which this families withstand all these and stick together throughout the difficulties (Hare 2). The Husain’s story shows how difficult it is to do good in an imperfect world where all systems are corrupt and the individuals are evil. One then wonders how the people at the bottom of the heap of trash can be honest in a world full of bribes and corruption.
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The system should be where people run to when they have problems but that does not seem to be the case, the affluent are getting it all; the privileges given by the system because they are able to pay for the services offered, while the police don’t care about the poor people in the slums at all because most of them cannot afford to pay the bribe.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers depicted Mumbai as a city of contrasts, where immense wealth and extreme poverty are rarely distant. It also shows how corruption in the public institutions and systems tends to undermine the community’s quality of life. The play reveals the obstacles to fairness and societal mobility in India. It also shows how young people in Annawadi remain hopeful through their personal philosophies especially in this time of global change. Abdul is the representation of a generation of young Indians struggling to elevate themselves out of poverty.
The setting onstage truly depicted the lives of the characters, there was a motorcycle on stage and a tuk-tuk too which was a typical Indian medium of transport and it was even driven on stage. There was use of a strong noise of a plane landing, which brought out the closeness of the slum to the airport. The loud roar of the plane drowns the screams of Kalu as he’s being attacked and later murdered by two drug dealers, who thought that he had given the police information about them. This was a very dramatic scene with the noise at its loudest and the screams from Kalu together with the roaring of the plane set the tone of the play right from the start.
As the play began, the shadow of a mighty passenger jet flew low over the Olivier stalls, the closeness of its very loud roar made the scalp tighten. Then, like a deluge of blessings, a cascade of used plastic bottles dropped from the skies. A pack of scavengers with their cardboard scoops went into a frenzied overdrive. This clearly depicts the huge gap between the affluent and the poor in Mumbai. The rich fly above the poor and leave them scrambling for their left over without a care of what is going on below them.
David Hare while writing the play did not identify a single main character to pivot and plot the play around. This I believe was a calculated risk he decided to take as the play has various characters that we have to get a hold of and there are also many stories to tell, the play thus keeps rotating on each one of the character’s lives and the struggles they go through as individuals and also as a family unit, especially when the one legged Fatima due to her jealousy of the Husain’s relative prosperity, inflicts burn wound on herself and later accuses them of being responsible for her injuries.
As with most stories that have a strong sense of place the play opened up to universal understanding. The play created tension between the perception of the situation and the energy of the place; this is because the sense of darkness was not because of the awful things that were happening to Husain’s family through the play or the poverty in Annawadi. The Husain family actually at this difficult time, depicted resilience in the face of the problems that later followed, after the one legged woman blamed their family for her injuries.
Their integrity came under scrutiny the family fortune was wiped out by the grasping “justice” system as they struggle to clear their name and we see a corrupt system where one has to pay a lot of money to see their own charge sheet. We have a glimpse of the corrupt nature of the legal system and the essential injustices of a society in which the poor repeatedly blame equally poor individuals for their misfortunes. The Husain family however shows an extraordinary story of hope, despair and the unity in and strong ties in the family unit.
The writer David Hare portrays the compromises the individuals in the play have to make in order to survive and have and get to the top of the heap with flashes of compassion and understanding, so that the audience actually relates to the cast. For instance: Asha having to sleep around in order for her daughter to get an education. The Husains having to pay the officer at the station just to see their charge sheet and due to the bribes they keep giving they lose all they worked so hard to build. They are back at the bottom where they started.
The darkness is because of the one thing that both the poor have learned, though in different ways and contexts but nevertheless the same thing, that the road to happiness and success involves mistreating and trampling over other people. It is this dark thought that pollutes the mind and pollinates the minor and small sins done by individuals and leads them to escalate and the tragedy multiplies.
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The adults have been depicted as having learned the wrong lesson; this left the children as the sensible untainted individuals in Annawadi. The young people in the play representing the youth in India, were shown as being the future of the country. The future where there will be no corruption as they could not stand for it or condone it. As is today the young people do not believe in corruption, they stand against the vice and even hold demonstrations in the streets to protests against it. The young people can now hold the public institutions accountable for any misappropriation or abuse of office.
Public offices still subtly favor a certain section of members in the society, because of their contribution to one or two of the organization’s projects, it however is not as rampant and if one is found out they could definitely be prosecuted. Thus the young people in the play represent the views of the young people in the world right now.
This character in the young people was however often regarded to as an act of revolt throughout the play we saw, Abdul round up on an officer who was asking for money in order to abort his father’s trial, Manju who has hopes of being the first woman in Annawadi to gain a degree also rejects the means through which her mother employs to pay for her education. Meena, Sunil and Kehkashan are also not left behind as they are also shown as being perceptive with an unbending, understanding of something they couldn’t get themselves to voice. Abdul brings together an energy that was out of control in the slum area and gets rid of the darkness engulfing them. This might well have been the start of something or nothing really but at least it was the moment the play was more than a vicious cycle that one was unable to escape from.
In as much as David Hare has done his best to get the most important themes from the book and release the play as the book is, there are a few things that we still miss from the book. For instance the play does not show Asha’s involvement in the local politics which was always the driving force behind her ambitiousness; to get to the money and power that runs the Annawadi.
The play however managed to bring the described image of the Mumbai slum close to the audience and he did this in a major way through the set up on stage and by focusing on the continuous and endless toil of the characters and the recreation of grim physical context in detail. From the play we also gained the sense of getting to see a living community and the young people in resistance of the corruption that was being accepted by the adults.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers was an exciting production as the adaptation managed to preserve the humanity and intimacy of the book.
Hare, D. (2014). Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Faber & Faber, Limited.
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