Sooni Taraporevala’s short documentary Yeh Ballet, about two young male dancers from Mumbai, was begging to be made into a feature film. So that’s exactly what she did. February 21 sees the Netflix premiere of a feature film on the same theme also titled Yeh Ballet, written and directed by Taraporevala.
There are similarities between the fiction and non-fiction works, but also many differences. The 2017 documentary focused on working-class dancers Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah, as they went through their training under an Israeli ballet instructor named Yehuda Maor. Despite hailing from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, lacking exposure to ballet or Western classic music and starting their lessons relatively late in life, the teenagers excelled under Maor’s tutelage. They were eventually picked for the Oregon Ballet Theatre School in the United States. Chauhan has since returned to Mumbai, while Shah has enrolled with the Royal School of Ballet in London.
In the feature film, produced by Roy Kapur Films, Manish Chauhan stars as Nishu, a fictionalised version of his real self. Nishu’s taxi driver father (Vijay Maurya) is contemptuous of his son’s terpsichorean adventures, and the boy struggles to put the right foot forward in his ballet lessons. Asif, played by Achintya Bose, faces the heat from a relative who warns him that dancing is against their Muslim faith, but he quickly becomes the favourite of the crusty instructor Saul (Julian Sands).
Both boys are from the slums, and the class divide that separates them from their more affluent course mates is among the themes explored by Taraporevala. Her screenplay also brings out the initial discomfort faced by the young learners, who have to wear form-hugging shorts. As Saul exhorts Nishu and Saif to shed their inhibitions, he yells in English, clench your bottoms. The Hindi translation could well be this movie’s version of Gully Boy’s now-iconic slogan “Apna Time Aayega.”
“It is one thing to dance, but when you wear these tight butt shorts, your samaan is showing, so it’s different from the regular deal,” Taraporevala observed. “Your whole body is on display here.”
The “Gaand dabao” line was inspired by an actual incident, as were other events in the film, but Taraporevala cautioned against reducing her new movie to an expanded version of the documentary. “I have already made the documentary, so this is not that film,” she pointed out. “I don’t want to list out what is real or fiction. I want it to be enjoyed as a film.”
The 2017 documentary was produced by Memesys Culture Lab, founded by filmmaker Anand Gandhi. Taraporevala’s son, Jahan Bativala, was working at Memesys at the time, and Gandhi approached Taraporevala to direct a virtual reality film based on a list of subjects drawn up for potential adaptation. Would Taraporevala be interested in exploring the experiences of two young male ballet dancers? The 63-year-old writer and filmmaker, who had learnt ballet as a child, quickly agreed.
When she saw Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah perform for the first time, she was gobsmacked. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – I had tears in my eyes,” she said.
There was already talk at the time of making a feature version. Taraporevala’s agent, Caleb Franklin, met producer Siddharth Roy Kapur, who was instantly interested, especially since his mother, Salome Roy Kapur, is a renowned dancer in Mumbai. Netflix, which stepped in to co-produce the film where many others hesitated, proved to be the natural destination for a heart-warming and feel-good exploration of dreams both local and universal.
Comparisons with the British production Billy Elliot (2000), about the 11-year-old ballet dancing son of a miner, are bound to be made despite being unwarranted. “Abroad, people generally know about ballet, but here, you can’t play that card,” she pointed out. “The conflicts in my film are about the family. I also wanted to convey how amazing the story was, and how incredible the achievements of Manish and Amir are. I still can’t get over it. Kids usually learn from the ages of four and six, but here were teenagers coming from an alien world.”
She seized the opportunity to explore the back stories of the dancers, which wasn’t always possible in the 14-and-a-half-minute documentary. In the feature version, Asif and Nishu chart different paths to success. Asif, despite his deep reluctance towards ballet and distrust of Saul, becomes the teacher’s most favoured pupil. Nishu labours from the back of the class, and battles domestic opposition and self-doubt.
While charting the character arcs of the teenagers, who are beautifully portrayed by the first-time actors, Taraporevala was also keen on ensuring that the dancing was top quality. “I was very particular that the ballet had to be correct,” she said. “I do want the film to be appreciated outside India, where people know ballet.” She roped in Cindy Jourdain, a seasoned ballet dancer who now lives and works in Mumbai.
“Jourdain knew ballet as well as filmmaking, and totally understood what I needed,” Taraporevala said. “She coached the boys in the sense of bringing them up to a certain level in terms of the moves.”
Manish Chauhan, being already trained in ballet, had to pretend to flub his early training. “I had to keep telling Manish, remember you are bad,” Taraporevala said. Achintya Bose is trained in jazz, urban and contemporary styles, and was taught ballet for the film. Jourdain also choreographed the classroom sequences.
Neither Chauhan nor Bose has been in a movie before, but Taraporevala had faith in their abilities to deliver performances that would match their dance floor skills. “Woody Allen had said, I believe in getting the best people for the job and then letting them do their job,” she observed. “I don’t think I can teach anyone how to act. I look for people who are natural in front of the camera.”
She also praised Julian Sands, who has numerous movie and television credits, for his leap of faith in accepting a role in an Indian production. “I was so grateful that he took a chance on me, travelling halfway around the world, blocking a substantial amount of time and foregoing much better paying jobs, I think, to do this,” she said.
One of the unlisted characters in Yeh Ballet is Mumbai, the city where Taraporevala was born and raised and which continues to inspire her personally and professionally. After studying at Harvard and New York University, Taraporevala returned to Mumbai to make films and shoot pictures – she is also an accomplished photographer. Some of her most memorable images are of members of her Parsi community.
In 1988, a collaboration with Harvard classmate Mira Nair began with Nair’s feature film debut Salaam Bombay! The winner of the Camera D’or, awarded to first-time productions, at the Cannes Film Festival, Salaam Bombay! explored the precarious lives of street children and revealed Taraporevala’s knack for putting the manners of Mumbai on the screen.
Taraporevala also wrote Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Namesake (2006), as well as Sturla Gunnarsson’s Such a Long Journey (1998) and Jabbar Patel’s biopic Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000).
Her directorial debut in 2008, Little Zizou, explored the conflict between orthodox and liberal Parsis in Mumbai. A comedy that spoofed as well as paid tribute to Parsiness, Little Zizou counts as one of the definitive Mumbai films.
The city finds expression in Yeh Ballet too, through its ability to give the irascible Saul shelter and a home and create a platform for Nishu and Asif to scale impossible heights despite their hardscrabble circumstances. Tarporevala counts Federico Fellini as one of her major inspirations, and says that every one of her scripts has been about “creating an entire world”. Yeh Ballet “has more conventional conflicts and resolutions than Little Zizou”, she observed, but the “circus and the world are similar”.
The film’s locations are key to revealing the chasm between the dancers and their classmates. Asif lives in a hovel in a slum in Mumbai’s Worli neighbourhood, while Nishu is from another slum settlement further down the coast in Bandra, where a temple, a cross and a mosque greet him on his way home every day.
“I have always been in love with Bombay, and I still am,” Taraporevala said. “I will never run out of inspiration in Bombay. This city is endless. Its character is one of diversity, and of different communities and religions living side by aide. I was so thrilled when we found this location in Bandra where there is a temple cheek-by-jowl with a statue of Christ and a masjid. For me, that is the essential truth of Bombay.”
Here, two dancers from different faiths can find what they seek, a foreigner can make peace with his past and bask in the reflected glory of his students, and conflicts can be resolved through the age-old Mumbai belief of living and letting live. Pigs may fly and young men may clench their bottoms and unleash their inner potential, pirouetting against the skyline and then leaping right over it.