The beautiful opening shot of Yeh Ballet spans Mumbai’s Bandra-Worli Sea Link and settles onto a group of teens B-boying in a clearing against the backdrop of a fishing community. Among them is Asif (Achintya Bose), a petite boy with a shaggy head of hair and a rebellious streak. Back in his modest home, he watches a dance reality show in which Nishu (Manish Chauhan) is given a winning title. Asif is resentful.
Nishu, the son of a taxi driver, struggles to be both the dutiful son and to stay (secretly) devoted to his passion for dance. Asif and Nishu meet at a local dance school. At first they are disdainful of one another and compete for the attention of their ballet teacher, Saul Aaron (Julian Sands). But later, under Saul’s tutelage, they become great allies.
Writer-director Sooni Taraporevala has expanded her virtual reality documentary of the same name into this facts-meet-fiction feature about two slumdog ballerinos. Yeh Ballet, which is being streamed on Netflix, is based on the true story of Mumbai boys Amiruddin Shah and Manish Chauhan and their Israeli-American mentor Yehuda Maor.
The film, which has been lensed by Kartik Vijay, follows all the beats of an underdog story. Taraporevala opts for a conventional structure to portray how the talented dancers overcome all odds – the lack of income and opportunity, language barriers, prejudice based on community and class – to make it to globally respected ballet institutes. The inherent challenges are wonderfully encapsulated by the US visa interview process.
The 117-minute film doesn’t mine the complexity of the dancers’ inner battles or community conflict. Though it starts weakly, Yeh Ballet ends strongly by celebrating possibilities and inclusivity, and hits its stride once Asif and Nishu build bonds.
Saul, the Israeli-American teacher with an unpleasant disposition who has faded from relevance in the US and lands a job at a humble dance academy in Mumbai, is a bitter and unlikable man. British actor Julian Sands doesn’t make Saul any less unpleasant.
Jim Sarbh and Mikhail Yawalkar are on-point as the dance school administrators. Vijay Maurya and Kalyanee Mulay and Heeba Shah and Danish Husain play the two sets of parents. But the spotlight belongs to Achintya Bose and Manish Chauhan. In spite of the clunky Bollywood-ised music and songs, their skills are given form by choreographers Cindy Jourdain, Shiamak Davar and Vitthal Patil. Channelled by Taraporevala’s cautious direction, the hard work, talent and the boyish attitude of the lead actors and dancers give some intensity to the elementary storytelling.