“I’m not going back there. I WON’T! I can still taste the hunger”
Poverty is one of the big themes explored in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, on at the National Theatre at the moment. This is one of the opening lines, delivered by the brilliant Stephanie Street who plays Asha Waghekar. It sets the tone early on as to what we can expect.
Adapted from Katherine Boo’s book of the same name, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a non-fiction novel based on Boo’s time studying slum life in India. The play is set in fictional Annawadi, a slum created on land owned by Mumbai airport. A billboard for a tiling company that bears the slogan “Beautiful Forever” divides the land- as well as the rich and the poor.
The play focuses initially on boys who make a living from picking rubbish. Tensions in the village between Hindus and Muslims; the younger and older generations; and modernity versus tradition, soon see the drama escalate.
Strong Female Themes
In part, Katherine Boo set out to understand the domestic lives of girls and women in Indian slums. It’s no accident then that we see some important female themes explored.
“In Annawadi, the women are the survivors,” Stephanie Street tells me. “And Asha clearly understands the system in which she lives – on a domestic front; in Annawadi and India; and also on a global scale – as being a battle in which only the fittest survive. The men have very short life expectancy because of the significant danger in their work with rubbish.”
“The men who do survive often then waste their lives away to alcohol, as does Mahadeo, Asha’s husband. So it’s left to the women to hold the homes together.”
And they often do so through any means possible- whether it’s lying, stealing, bribing and prostitution. I asked Stephanie if Asha is the ultimate Tiger mum, or simply corrupt. She told me:
“I can see that it’s tempting to make a moral judgement on her. But I have a young daughter myself and I would do literally anything for her. Asha is no different to me it just happens that she lives in circumstances radically different from my privileged reality, in the liberal West. She has to adopt means that are available- and necessary for their survival.”
‘Education is rebellion’
In real contrast, we see the younger female characters Manju and Meena really striving for a more lasting form of emancipation from poverty, namely education.
“Manju is passionate about education,” Anjana Vasan who plays Manju, told me. “But it isn’t just about improving herself. She has a natural instinct for teaching in that she wants to help others. Teaching gives her a sense of purpose. That’s something Katherine Boo said to me which really stuck with me. Manju’s strong sense of duty and passion for teaching is what gives her strength.”
There are some really poignant moments between Manju and her friend Meena as they meet in the outdoor toilets where Manju shares titbits of what she’s learnt with Meena. This really spoke to me. I wonder how many in the audience made that connection the there are many, many women today who are denied an education- that this is not just the storyline of slum-dwellers?
Sadly the relationship between Manju and Meena ends in tragedy, culminating in what was for me, the most difficult scene to watch.
Meena’s mother, enraged to find out that Manju had been trying to her educate her, admits “we all beat on Meena” to get her to submit. They see no point in educating her because, as puts it, “education is rebellion.” “Is her mind broad enough for you know?!” she screams at Manju.
Stephanie who plays Manju’s mum says: “I always feel such admiration for Manju: even in the midst of the tragedy and no matter how tough the fight, Manju’s drive to make life better for the kids she teaches is such a beautiful, hopeful thing.”
Certainly hope is one of the enduring themes throughout the play. Abdul Husain, on whom much of the storyline is focussed on, displays amazing tenacity and hope; despite much heartache and persecution throughout the story. Shane Zaza who plays Abdul told me:
“He is both an ordinary and an amazing young man. He has this wonderful sense of integrity and discipline and maybe that is part of his DNA. His mother, Zehrunisa, has an outer strength and determination and his father Karam has faith. So it may also be a combination of his parents too.”
Heart-breaking at times, deeply moving, often funny; you cannot help but leave the evening somehow changed by the issues explored. This is a truly breath taking performance all round.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Olivier Theatre London until May 5th. Book tickets