Katherine Boo taught me what creative non-fiction really means. It means staying true to the characters that you choose to represent, because their stories belong to them. I read and loved “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” because, above all, it was Real.
When I learnt that the book was being adapted for the stage, and was going to be shown at the National Theatre, I got my tickets months in advance. The earliest possible weekend fell in February, and I informed D that we were going to be spending Valentine’s Day in Annawadi. I provided a full briefing on how this journalist immersed herself in the life of a Mumbai slum for years, how she collected her data and cross-checked facts from police and court records. I also thought it would be fair to warn him that this was going to be bleak – but very, very powerful.
Within the National Theatre, the Lyttleton Theatre, where the play was being staged, was relatively small. It really felt like we had entered an abadi on the periphery of a big South Asian city – that it was right before us, cramped and squalid, smothered by plastic bags. The acting was magnificent; from slow, stolid Abdul to sharp-tongued Zehrunnisa, to the unfortunate Fatima, each character on its own managed to evoke empathy. It would have made for a truly memorable production, had the rise of any emotion not been constantly interrupted by blaring Bollywood music.
Of course no life is consistently bleak, and both humour and pathos co-exist. But my objection to the Bollywood-isation here was that it coloured the reality of the stories. There was, for instance, a jarring blast of music right after young Kalu was brutalized and left in a dump – creating an artificial kind of light-heartedness. This meant that a distance was created between the characters and the audience, so that people were constantly reminded that this was a stage production. Much to my chagrin, therefore, they not drawn in deeply enough to keep from laughing out loud during some of the most terrible scenes. The figure cut by vengeful One-Legged Fatima became ridiculous in front of those who did not actually end up understanding where she was coming from. The tragedy of her life and death were laid bare before an audience without the kind of respect that the objectivity of the book provided.
These were not fictitious people. Their lives – and deaths – were recorded to provide a peep-hole into a certain kind of world. The dramatization of that world has its requirements, perhaps – tickets must be sold, and people don’t really want to walk away from a show feeling depressed. But it is also not necessary to walk away with clichés reinforced, singing “Om Shanti Om.” That, alas, became the tragedy of transferring these stories from the page to the stage.
(Post-play reaction category: Rant)