Sudha Bhuchar, A Fine Balance rehearsals, 2006

A Fine Balance

by Tim Walker
Sunday Telegraph | 15 April 2007

A Fine Balance, an adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s Booker-shortlisted novel, at the Hampstead Theatre is as honest and utterly uncontrived a piece of drama as one could hope for.

Indira Gandhi has been given a remarkably easy ride of it by the historians, but this story of Dina, a Parsi widow attempting to make her own way in an unnamed Indian city during the notorious State of Emergency of the mid-1970s, is a damning, eloquent indictment of a prime minister who almost brought her country to its knees.

Sudha Bhuchar grows before our eyes in the central role of Dina – a cold, ruthlessly focused businesswoman when we first see her, trying to exploit the two Hindu tailors that she illegally employs in her tiny flat (Sagar Arya and Amit Sharma) and eventually, through adversity, she becomes a fully-paid up member of the human race.

The fourth occupant of Dina’s flat is Maneck, her paying guest, who is played by an interesting actor named Divian Ladwa.  The lives of all four become inextricably linked under the harsh oppressive regime of Mrs Gandhi, and friendships that cross the traditional boundaries of caste, class and religion soon develop. 

There is a peculiarly harrowing account of how Dina’s two employees are forced into having ‘nussbundhi’ – or vasectomy – in accordance with government policy to help cut down on the population.  This play spares us very little.  One can almost feel the heat and the dust and the fear of ordinary people in the city as they struggle against the odds to remain alive and maintain some semblance of dignity.

There are especially impressive turns from Taylan Halici as a worldly beggarmaster with a few redeeming features; and Rina Fatania, with her Carmen Miranda outfit and huge expressive eyes, is a delight as the boss of the company that Dina supplies with garments. 

This is a profoundly political play with very little politics.  Mrs Gandhi’s only apologist is Nusswan, Dina’s corpulent brother played with some relish by Tony Jayawardena, who says that ‘poverty has to be tackled head-on. Mrs Gandhi’s twenty-point programme has pragmatic policies, not irrelevant theories’, and then goes on to talk about the need for mass genocide.

Halici’s beggarmaster, talking about the State of Emergency, says simply ‘it has become a game, like all the other laws. Easy to play, once you know the rules’. The dinner that Dina eventually shares with all three occupants of her flat is played to perfection.  The two tailors begin by trying to eat with knives and forks but eventually plough into the curry with their fingers.  There is, for once, no anger in Dina’s eyes: only compassion. 

In the last act the huge backdrop portrait of Mrs Gandhi is lowered, and the characters – all of them symbols of different walks of life in India – begin to claw their way back to normality.  This magnificent Tamasha company production, directed with tremendous sensitivity by Kristine Landon-Smith and adapted by her and Sudha Bhuchar, is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit and its message is therefore universal.  This is an important and challenging piece of theatre.