Unlike Delhi, where power and pedigree are frequently asserted, Mumbai’s wealthy have their high-rise homes overlooking slums where some of the city’s poorest live. As the opening aerial shot of Yeh Ballet shows, prosperity and poverty are long standing neighbours in Mumbai. It’s a daily humbling reminder of the immense privilege of having an attached bathroom.
Yeh Ballet, now streaming on Netflix, is based on the true story of Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah, who were discovered by their Israeli ballet teacher Yehuda Maor. Both youngsters ended up being selected by ballet schools in America and are now pursuing their dreams in the dance form. Director Sooni Taraporevala who made a documentary on the two of them in 2017, writes a feature film version of her documentary, fleshing out the backstories and applying religious, social and political filters to this dance drama.
Nishu (Manish Chauhan playing a fictionalised version of himself) and Asif (Achintya Bose playing Amir) are residents of two separate chawls along Mumbai’s coast. Their fathers are a taxi driver (Vijay Maurya) and welder (Danish Husain) respectively while Nishu’s mother (Kalyanee Mulay) stitches clothes to supplement the family income. Nishu is passionate about dance and is first seen participating in a dance reality show while Asif is happy just dancing with his buddies in an open area outside Worli koliwada. Interestingly, the film opens with a song that has the lyrics, Mumbai ka king kaun (who is the king of Mumbai), a definite hat tip to Bhikhu Mhatre and cult classic film Satya where a man from the slums rises to become a powerful man in Mumbai.
The two meet when Asif’s older brother, who delivers pizzas to the dance academy, finds him a spot, while Nishu is spotted by a manager at the dance school and given a fee discount in lieu of his talent. It’s not entirely impossible, especially in a city like Mumbai where opportunity is more democratic, but still it’s the first amongst the many situations where Sooni eases obstacles for her protagonists, never really allowing them to hit rock bottom before turning on the light at the end of the tunnel.
Nishu is seen cleaning bathrooms, and Asif loses a friend before gaining perspective, but these moments of struggle flit by too quickly. So when Asif tells his friend that he has taken to ballet like a chewing gum that gets firmly stuck in hair, you find it hard to feel his passion.
It also doesn’t help that ballet is still a fairly alien dance form to Indians. The film Gully Boy which told a similar story of a boy from Dharavi chose rap and hip hop, a music form that seemed organically connected to the protagonist’s emotional state. Yeh Ballet never really explains to us why these two boys are so drawn to ballet as a dance form. Especially considering Nishu can’t even pronounce ballet when he first joins. Is it the discipline it demands, is it the elegance of the movements? Is it the fact that not too many men choose it? You never feel the exhilaration of an ‘Apna time ayega’ because Sooni never tries to find any threads to tie an Indian social setup to a dance form that’s not only western but also perceived as elitist and feminine.
Which is perhaps the elephant in the room that never gets addressed. The problem is not just that making a living through dance is difficult or that it’s ‘haraam’. Dance, especially ballet, is still not considered a respectable ‘masculine’ choice for a man to pursue. The fact that these boys have chosen a dance form that for years has been perceived as a feminine dance form, is never addressed at all. Instead, Sooni gives them both girlfriends (of sorts) as if to clarify that ballet does not equal to being gay.
There are a couple of wonderful moments that stay with you. Asif dancing while standing in line for water, Nishu practising while washing his clothes, and the two boys ganging up against their teacher, but the moments are far and few in between. There is no denying that both the lead actors are very talented dancers, especially Manish who is trained in ballet. His poise and grace are commendable while Achintya who has trained in other dance styles and learnt ballet for the film is also a joy to watch.
While there are multiple supporting characters, Sooni doesn’t not flesh out any of these roles beyond the basic requirements of the slum to success template. Disapproving parents, rich kind hearted girl, sassy talented poor girl and intolerant trouble makers are the types these characters are slotted into. Also that line about not throwing away a god-given talent was just too uncomfortably similar to Ranveer Singh’s dialogue from Gully Boy, whose dialogue writer Vijay Maurya has also written the Hindi dialogues of Yeh Ballet.
To me the weakest link of the film was Julian Sands as the cantankerous but well-meaning teacher Saul. Sooni can’t resist going down the heavily-flogged white man clueless in the third world country path. Julian, who is an experienced actor, seems lost on where to pitch his character. Perhaps his discomfort at living in Mumbai is supposed to tie in the struggles of his proteges but these parallels are never fleshed out.
I couldn’t help but wonder why we never see the teacher dance. Sands just watches his students dance, or berates them from time to time, but never stops to demonstrate a single ballet pose. Any performing artist draws heavily from his or her guru or teacher/ mentor and it’s a relationship that’s especially revered in India. Apart from showing his students some videos and making them practice long hours, I just couldn’t understand why he forced the boys to live with him when he never gave them an insight into his vast experience through lecture or demonstration.
Dance is perhaps the most instinctive art form and most personal too. Something within you forces you to move your body arms and legs to express the feeling you can’t quite contain within anymore. Sometimes any step will do and sometimes you are trained to express yourself better and better with technical precision. Either way, it’s you and your body telling a story about what moved you to dance. While this movie has a lot of wonderful dancing, it didn’t move me at all.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.