The Play 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' Oversimplifies Slum Life in Mumbai

The new play is based on Katherine Boo's book about the lives of families living in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai. Unlike the book, however, it avoids complex issues in favor of one-dimensional entertainment.

by Hannah Harris Green
Nov 26 2014, 5:00am

​Stephanie Street as Asha Waghekar and Anjana Vasan as Manju Waghekar in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

​ If you live in poverty, you're not in a strong position to negotiate when selling your labor, your body, or your life story. So it is for the children of the slums of Mumbai who have helped solidify the reputations of big-name film directors. In 1986, Mira Nair scoured the city's streets for talent, offering boys 20 rupees (32 cents) a day to participate in a "drama workshop," which was really a kind of audition. In 2009 Shafiq Syed, the boy she chose for her lead, told the Times of India that other children were afraid this was a "game to exploit children." He was paid 15,000 rupees ($242) for two months of shooting. While the resulting film, Salaam Bombay, went on to be nominated for an Oscar and made more than $2 million in the USA, Syed wandered the streets looking for acting work. He eventually returned to Bangalore, where he barely gets by as a rickshaw driver.

Years later, British director Danny Boyle would follow in Nair's footsteps, searching the streets of Mumbai for the cast of Slumdog Millionaire. In the aftermath of the 2008 film's stunning success—by 2009, the film had made more than $140 million—a few people noticed how little the children got paid. Rubina Ali, who played Latika, was originally paid about 48,000 rupees ($785) to be in the film.

When Pulitzer Prize–winning  New Yorker writer Katherine Boo showed up in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi with a reporter's notebook and a couple of translators, her intentions were different from those of Nair and Boyle. While the two film directors used the children in Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire to lend authenticity to their artistic visions, Boo was attempting to document slum life from scratch. Boo's book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, chronicles the lives of families living in a squalid migrant settlement and became an immense success. It was a New York Times best seller and a National Book Award winner. The people whom Boo wrote about couldn't expect their lives to be changed by the book, just accurately documented. And they wer​e satisfied with the result. 

But this month, their stories were taken to a new platform. Playwright and scriptwriter David Hare, who wrote the screenplay for The Hours, adapted Boo's book into a play, which premiered at the National Theatre in London on November 10. The play was directed by Rufus Norris and has a cast of more than 30 actors and an elaborate set made by Katrina Lindsay that features heaps of scrap and garbage. 

Projects that dive into the stories of India's urban poor can be successful if they attempt to force audiences to see the people represented as complex human beings rather than pitiful or exotic stereotypes. Boo succeeded in this realm. Hare tries but fails with the play. All the elements that an educated foreigner might associate with India are present in both the book and the play—corruption, poverty, oppressed women, religious tension. But Boo's book shows what it's like to attempt to really grapple with and overcome these obstacles. She makes it possible for the reader to imagine herself living and struggling in Annawadi.

A scene from Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Many storylines and nuances in Boo's book are cut from the play, but Asha is a prominent character in both. In the book, she has dreams of being the first female slumlord in Mumbai. She does what she can to take advantage of the system, working against the odds. While her ambitions don't exactly make her a sympathetic character, you have to admit that not many people could do what she's done with the hand she's been dealt. She escaped from the extreme poverty of a rural village to become the most influential woman in her Mumabi ghetto, pulling weight with police officers and politicians. Still, she has to make compromises: "Her mind moved more quickly than other people's. The politicians had eventually recognized this dexterity and came to depend on it. Even so, it had not been enough," writes Boo. In order to really tip the scales in her favor, she occasionally has to sleep with someone. Asha's story is a complex one about, among other things, what causes and sustains corruption and why someone might think participating in a corrupt system is the only way to get a better life for oneself and one's family.

The play, on the other hand, doesn't really encourage complex thinking about these issues. We see the stage version of Asha asking for bribes, and we see her turning tricks. But we don't see the extent of her ambition, or the hard work and shrewdness that's allowed her to get as far as she has.

Hare must have felt both blessed and daunted when he was commissioned to adapt Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The material he had to work with was extraordinarily rich and exhaustive, but this made it more difficult to do it justice. Like Asha, other characters and elements of the storyline are flattened in the play. And this matters, because those are stories of real people who are still fighting it out every day in Mumbai's streets—that is, if they haven't already perished in the struggle. (Many of the people Boo observed died during the course of her reporting.) Occasionally a funny moment will come out of the sad situation, as in real life. But watching the staged version, I was disturbed when an audience full of posh theatergoers laughed while actors, trying with varying degrees of success to hide their British accents, did a mock version of the events that led to a real suicide in a real slum not all that long ago.

Unlike Boo's book, the play isn't a work of journalism bent on exposing the complex issues that lie behind the struggle in Annawadi. It is it another instance of the lives of real people getting turned into lucrative one-dimensional entertainment, while they get little to nothing in return. I can't help wondering what the people of Annawadi would think if they could see Hare's version of their story with their own eyes. But they will likely never be able to afford the $55 tickets.

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An earlier version of this article stated that the play was made without the involvement of people from Annawadi. However, some Annawadi citizens were consulted during the development of the theatrical version of Behind the Beautiful Forevers.