Philobiblon: The flavours of India in Hampstead

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The flavours of India in Hampstead

There are some moments from Tamasha's production of A Fine Balance, which has premiered at the Hampstead Theatre, that I will remember for long time. There's the opening scene, of a legless beggar, who skims around the stage seeking alms amid an imaginary traffic jam, evoked by a soundscape and smellscape that immediately transported me to Calcutta, the site of my first encounter-shock with the sub-continent. Then there's the stunningly effective puppetry that solves the problem of animal and child characters - the "death" of one animal puppet produces an almost audience-wide audible gasp.

Yet these excellent moments are blended to produce a dull, if worthy, whole. The play is based on the eponymous Booker-shortlisted novel by Rohinton Mistry, one of those classic Indian sprawling epics, in this case exploring the impact of Indira Gandhi's 1975 Emergency, which imposed martial rule on the world's "largest democracy".

The story, by and large, is of the effects on the poor - the slum-dwellers thrown out of their homes and driven into pointless stone-breaking, morale-sapping labour; their employers, only marginally more economically secure, left without workers; the men and women sterilised by force ... the novel is a great sweeping tale. The play takes in all of their stories, yet while it leaps from drama to drama, from crisis to crisis, the action on stage is slow, even langorous. This is a neat synopsis of a play, but the heart, the soul, is missing.

Part of the problem is that none of the characters is developed - they are more archetypes than people. I naturally sympathise with Dina Dalal (Sudha Bhuchar). We meet her as a sweat-shop employer, but she gradually emerges as a struggling woman, a widow, determined to maintain her independence in a male-dominated world, if only to remain out of the uncaring clutches of her bullying brother. But she is a stereotype, if an admirable stereotype; we never learn more. What was her relationship with her husband; what gave her the steel to battle on to the bitter end? (The book answers these questions; the drama does not.) READ MORE

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