Slum to stage: Tale of Mumbai shantytown lights up London theater

London audiences were given insight into the experience of Indian slum dwelling this week

Nabila Pathan
Nabila Pathan - Special to Al Arabiya News
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London audiences were given insight into the experience of Indian slum dwelling this week with the opening of the play “‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers” at London’s National Theatre.

Adapted from Katherine Boo’s 2012 bestselling and Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book with the same title, the stage show captures Boo’s exploration of life in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum of nearly 3000 inhabitants, whose means of survival is to scavenge from the waste products of the rich.


Adapted for stage by David Hare, the focus is the under city that operates in the shadows of India’s symbols of economic prosperity, whether it’s Mumbai International Airport or the neighbouring luxury hotels. The play sheds light on the shantytown Annawdi and how it represents Mumbai: a land of extremes; the uber wealthy living side-by-side with some of the poorest in the world.

Boo’s original work, whose title “Beautiful Forever” was taken from a tiling company slogan that was found repeating along a wall dividing “Annawadi,” has been applauded for meticulously curating a portrait of volatility amidst an economy of prosperity. Translated into a three hour showcase, the stage show has been hailed as “a widescreen epic.” The production brings to life some of Boo’s original characters and their stories of despair, hope and indifference; often caught in a vicious cycle of unending corruption.


Initially skeptical of such a transformation, Katherine Boo explains how the idea to transform the ideas from the pages was first touted by New York producer Scott Rudin to David Hare. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, she explains: “I just wasn’t sure what it would be like to fictionalize lives,” she says. “I was uncomfortable with it. But then other people in my life said, ‘You’re being silly, these are very serious people with interesting points of view.’

She returned back to the slum to ask the characters that featured in her non-fiction book:

“In some way they found the idea of theatre more accessible than a book, because many of the people I wrote about were illiterate or semi-literate.”


According to a recent review by The Economist, the transition from non-fiction prose to theatre has been successfully accomplished: “For the dramatist looking to adapt the story to the stage, the network of extraordinary relationships presents a huge challenge. Nevertheless Sir David Hare’s profoundly touching new play rises to it. And this performance at the National Theatre in London, with a largely young Asian cast that includes the talented Shane Zaza, led brilliantly by Rufus Norris, the theatre’s director-designate, is a slick work of epic proportions.”

However, this feat of achievement also forms part of the criticism levelled at the construction of the unfolding plot by another reviewer at The Hollywood Reporter: “[the] adaptation also feels unfocused and ungainly at times, replacing the author’s forensic reportage with broad strokes, muddled messages and episodic pacing.”


With so many stories to tell, the ambitious set instantly recreates the sights and sounds of Annawadi: Discarded waste environment amidst the interweaving plots of the multiple characters, and atmospheric sounds of roaring jets flying overhead transport the audience to the very slum being depicted.

Some of the main protagonists include the hardworking teenager Abdul played by Shane Zaza, his headstrong mother, Zehrunisa (Meera Syal). Their family, relatively prosperous in contrast to their co slum dwellers becomes a source of tension for their jealous neighbour, the one-legged Fatima. The envy triggers an unexpected and violent turn of events, with the family getting caught up in system which is corrupt and sinister, making them lose their savings.

The play “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” will be showcasing at the National Theatre until April 2015. For more information about the play, visit the website.

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