Behind the beautiful forevers Detail of the cover of "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity"

Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries you headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget

Most stories of the poor in India are either sentimental or treat the poor as victims, or both. There is a view that the best amongst the downtrodden are potential entrepreneurs with a vision to lift themselves out of poverty. David Hare’s production of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers manages to overcome these stereotypes without playing to any false hopes.

The play is based on the non-fiction account of Boo’s three years spent talking to and following people in Annawadi, a slum that emerged in the early 1990s and now contains thousands of squatters—mainly rubbish pickers and sorters of plastic bottles—on the land owned by the airport in Mumbai. As if lives and livelihoods weren’t precarious enough, following the airport’s privatisation there are always rumours that the slum will soon be cleared.

We get some of this background from Sunil Sharma, one of the lead characters who opens the play and who takes us through his life as a rubbish picker. His choices are stark and bleak: learn to steal the best rubbish and plastic bottles, and be quick about it, or risk your life by joining the ranks of the big-time thieves, with prospects for bigger, but probably temporary, rewards. No choice holds out even the hope of stability or the ability to plan life, and no choice is free of risk, and hence they are not really choices at all.

Abdul Husain, a Muslim friend of Sunil’s and always the cautious one, prefers to get on with work, help his family, and stay out of trouble. Sunil is clever and wants to stay out of trouble, but tries his hand at stealing metal and gets caught and beaten up by the guards of the nearby luxury hotels. He eventually escapes and goes back to his former existence, unlike their friend Kalu, who gets killed by gang members who monopolise the metal business.

Sunil and Abdul, as with most of the slum dwellers, are fully aware that the price they get for the rubbish they collect depends on what happens in Wall Street. Whether you’re good or bad, honest or dishonest is not the point; it’s near impossible to navigate your way around the system, to get any justice from it. The system has no space for the morality of the poor. 

This is vividly portrayed in a scene where a Master comes to teach the young boys in the prison about the importance of being good. Of course it’s always presented as a choice that is theirs to make. But the boys have already learned that getting by involves owning up even when you didn’t do whatever it is they accuse you of, because as the boys explain, that’s what they want to hear. It’s less trouble that way.

The rich, on the other hand, have the system stitched up. From court officials who couldn’t care less about the problems of the poor, domestic or otherwise, to local government officials, who demand bribes to ensure that the poor are simply left alone. And because they have the system stitched up, they are the least moral. Their empty morality dominates society. Asha, the local moneylender and a member of Shiv Sena, explains that the one thing she’s learnt from the rich is that if you think you’ve done nothing wrong then you haven’t.

The police, of course, are despised. Several scenes take place at the local police station, where the police torture the poor, ask for bribes and sexual favours, and harangue them. It’s hard to say who is worse off, the poorest, who the police sometimes let off because they have nothing to offer, or the slightly less poor, who are constantly harassed for whatever they have. The play tells of the corruption of the whole system—even the hospital that neither has the necessary medicines nor adequate staff who are willing to treat patients.

But while corruption is a central theme, we also get at least some sense that the problem lies not just with corruption but rather with the system as a whole, since the poor can’t win whether they are crooked or straight. Abdul, who refuses to own up for things he didn’t do, and is even tortured and spends time in prison for it, moves from becoming a picker of rubbish to a sorter of rubbish, and towards the end of the play he owns a little truck and becomes a mover of rubbish. But his life isn’t getting much better and he knows it; when Sunil asks how it’s going, he replies: ‘Rubbish.’ Middle-class campaigns to clean up the city and prevent people from littering are counterproductive for the poor, whose livelihoods depend on the rubbish that is dropped.

The set and stage design of the play are masterful and make for a stunning atmosphere. The whole stage is used from back to front and top to bottom; rubbish is thrown on the floor near the audience, making you feel as if you’ve entered the slum, while it’s made all the more real when a neighbour Fatimah lights a fire in her hut, and comes out having burned herself. Suicide attempts are common in Annawadi. The monsoon arrives and it even rains on stage. The most exciting is when the shadow of a giant plane traverses the entire theatre, from behind the audience towards the stage, but above it, complete with sound effects, bringing the mind back to the looming reality of the life below.

The subject of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is compelling and in general the politics uncompromising. Asha explains that because the rich don’t want the slum to exist, that is one of their only weapons. This pans out in a particular scene in which Abdul suggests paying the local government official’s bribe in plastic bottles, which they begin throwing at her. But if life is unbearable for much of the slum population, mostly grim and hopeless, there would have been advantage in suggesting more of the slum’s context, its complicated connections between the labouring poor and the wider world of neoliberal India. Perhaps then it might have been easier to imagine not only a way out of Annawadi but also the end of Annawadi and all the slums like it.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is showing at the National Theatre until 13 April. It will also be shown in Cineworld cinemas for one night only on 12 March 2015.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU

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