Annawadi, the vast slum concealed behind Mumbai Intl. Airport, was author Katherine Boo’s home for three years. It’s doubtful that she’d recognize the place in its onstage incarnation. The crowded, makeshift, lawless swamp Boo captured in her nonfiction novel “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” looks positively idyllic in Rufus Norris’ staging: sun-soaked, colorful and even, on occasion, bedecked with fairy lights. David Hare has turned Boo’s intricate reportage into a polished, plot-driven epic that’s never anything less — or anything more — than watchable. But surely poverty this extreme, lives this precarious, should never be this palatable?
Boo’s fragmentary account of Annawadi becomes a streamlined story of three matriarchs: Zehrunisa Husain (Meera Syal), head of a family of hard-grafting rubbish pickers; Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera), their bitter, one-legged and down-at-heel neighbor; and Annawadi’s “go-to woman,” Asha (Stephanie Street), earning her crust by crossing the right palms — and, sometimes, uncrossing her legs.
The Husains’ home improvement triggers a bitter dispute with Fatima, who sets herself alight to accuse her neighbors of incitement — still a criminal offense in India. It leaves the Husains facing life imprisonment and financial ruin, as Asha circles, attempting to reallocate their rupees. Other stories slink in and out of this framework: Sunil, a young picker who turns thief to up his earnings; Asha’s daughter Manju, sneaking to the toilet to self-educate in secret.
Essentially, Hare delivers a series of interwoven parables about capitalism. He presents a primitive, slumdog-eat-slumdog economy, in which everyone’s desperate to get ahead. Cheats and thieves take the spoils and corruption rules the roost. The honest ones, like Zehrunisa’s son Abdul (Shane Zaza), lose out at every turn. There’s no room for empathy and no time for thought.
To give Hare his dues, he’s mined a well-wrought epic out of Boo’s narrative strands. In doing so, however, he betrays her subjects — the real people, really struggling to survive. Here, real lives are Hollywood-neat, and in Hare’s Annawadi, everyone speaks David Hare — that is, pithy left-wing one-liners.
Norris, too, misses Annawadi’s energy. Despite a slick, dynamic staging, motored by the Olivier’s revolve, he presents a synthetic, superficial version of poverty, where even the street trash comes prewashed. Slum life doesn’t look at all squalid in Katrina Lindsay’s handsome design, which is increasingly dominated by construction as Mumbai concretes over Annawadi.
We’re never really forced to see ourselves in relation to this world. The airport and its Western tourists are only fleeting glimpsed, and the hoardings advertising luxury developments — those “beautiful forever” signs — don’t make their presence felt.
Instead, we get sentimentality, which is increasingly hard to resist. Annawadi’s optimistic youngsters, the reasons behind their mothers’ sacrifices, are particularly winning. Zaza’s gentle and observant Abdul, who swears off stolen goods, is well matched by Anjana Vasan’s bookish Manju and Hiran Abeysekera’s impish Sunil.
Mumbai’s matriarchs — Syal, Jayasundera and Street — all find some sympathy, though all occasionally step outside their characters to seek the odd laugh. That’s symptomatic of a show more concerned with its audience’s enjoyment than the plight of its subjects. It should be the other way around.