As the sparsely populated Mumbai local train speeds up, two teenagers instantly launch into movement, swaying from one metallic rod to another.
“The first time we met our ballet teacher, he told us to stretch our legs and dance. We didn’t understand a word of what he was saying,” say Amiruddin Shah and Manish Chauhan, undulating amidst goggle-eyed commuters – a point of view enhanced by the 360-degree virtual reality perspective with which they have been shot.
Sooni Taraporevala’s rivetting documentary Yeh Ballet chronicles the lives of the young ballet dancers, who hail from working class families in Mumbai and are among the first in India to get scholarships to study at ballet school in the United States of America. The documentary has been produced by filmmaker Anand Gandhi’s Memesys Culture Lab, and will be screened at the London Indian Film Festival (June 22-29). The 14-minute film captures the challenges faced by the duo up until they leave for the Oregon Ballet Theatre School in the US.
“I was fascinated that two boys who had never heard western classical music or seen classical ballet, after a mere 2 and a half years of instruction were so good that they had got a scholarship to the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in NYC,” said Taraporevala, the writer of several acclaimed films, including Salaam Bombay! and The Namesake, and the director of Little Zizou (2008).
Fifteen-year-old Shah is the youngest of eight siblings and the son of a welder from Sanpada in Navi Mumbai, while 21-year-old Chauhan is a taxi driver’s son. They learnt ballet from Yehuda Maor. In the film, the American teacher declares that Chauhan is a ‘Broadway meets Ballet’ performer, while Shah is the more ‘traditional’ one.
“I had learnt ballet myself for many years in Bombay as a child,” Taraporevala said. “I know the dance form and how difficult it is even though it looks so effortless and easy.”
Yeh Ballet brings us even closer to the young dancers through the virtual reality format – a first for Taraporevala. “It was a learning curve for me,” she said. “The VR rig is a pole with a round of GO Pro cameras attached to it. I had been told one essential fact that if anybody got within a few feet of the cameras they would be distorted. With a regular camera, film or video that is never a problem.”
Yeh Ballet got its world premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest, and has been released on streaming platforms. “In Yeh Ballet you are not only following the journey of the two boys but you also have to hear what they say and read subtitles,” Taraporevala explained. “Because of this potential for it being all too much I wanted to make the edit as easy as possible on the viewer. I didn’t want them having to swing around for 14 minutes trying to follow the story.”
With the rig placed in the middle of the studio, the boys were made to dance around it without coming too close, enabling the viewers to virtually trace their moves. “We had no idea what went on in the scenes until we saw the footage later,” Taraporevala said.
The film showed the pair struggling to fill out their visa forms. Six months after production, Manish Chauhan is still pursuing ballet at the Oregon Ballet Theatre. Amiruddin Shah has returned to India and is looking to join the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Onassis School after being sponsored by Cipla patriarch Yusuf Hamied.
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