A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry
Tamasha in association with Hampstead Theatre
Hampstead Theatre
(2006)

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Over the years, the Booker Prize Shortlist has been well served by Indian novelists and Rohinton Mistry is well able to compete with previous winners such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.

A Fine Balance places its colourful collection of characters firmly in the India of Indira Gandhi. If there is any doubt about this, it is immediately dispelled by 20 ft-high face of the former leader smiling down on proceedings from the backdrop. That smile tells its own tale, looking far more sinister than benign.

To quote from a biography of India's first female Prime Minister, "To secure her power and because of escalating riots, on June 26, 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency which limited the personal freedom of Indians".

The state of emergency provides the basis for Rohinton Mistry's novel and this adaptation into theatrical form by Tamasha.

Into it he drops a rich variety of Indians, few of whom have two paisas to rub together. At the centre are Rehan Sheikh's Ishvar and his lively nephew Om (Amit Sharma). They come to an unnamed city, presumably Bombay, to make their fortune. Already, life has not been generous to them as the whole of their family has been slaughtered.

Their one stroke of good luck is to meet Dina Dalal, played by the company's joint founder and artistic director Sudhar Bhuchar. She is an independent widow in her late thirties or early forties who is desperate to make ends meet by fulfilling a contract to provide dresses.

This releases the two men from their subterranean sweat shop and places them in the relatively congenial surroundings of her flat, which she already shares with an illegal lodger, Divian Ladwa as genteel student Maneck.

Around these four central characters circle a rich variety of city dwellers including Shankar who has no legs and chirpily rolls himself around on a trolley. Less friendly are Shankar's seedy looking beggar master, Dina's landlord with his bullies, and two unsettling men of the street, Rajaram the hair collector and the Monkey Man, accompanied by his puppet pets.

As with the almost Dickensian novel, the storyline has its elements of a cheerful comedy but, in the author's efforts to portray Mrs Gandhi's regime in what he sees as an appropriately negative light, was unlikely to have a happy ending. With shanty towns bulldozed and sterilisation compulsory for the poor, it is hard to see where the happy ending would come from.

The idea of converting a magical novel into a play must often seem tempting but does not always succeed. In this case, the pacing is often turgid and much of the life and colour of the city is presented in a series of downbeat episodes so that it is only towards the end of the play that there is any real momentum.

There are some good performances, especially from a couple of the character actors, Divian Ladwa and Shiv Grewal, each of whom plays two key roles that are so well differentiated that you hardly realise that you are watching the same actor.

The acid test for this type of work is whether the entrance charge would be better spent on a ticket or a copy of the book. In this case, while the play is a nice reminder of the quality of Rohinton Mistry's writing, it is no replacement for it.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher