Director: Sooni Taraporevala
Cast: Manish Chauhan, Achintya Bose, Julian Sands, Vijay Maurya
Streaming on: Netflix
Only a year ago, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy chose the story of a slum-dwelling artist whose medium of musical expression – rapping – sounds like an aural extension of Mumbai slang. Sooni Taraporevala’s Yeh Ballet chooses the story of two slum-dwelling artists whose medium of musical expression – ballet – looks like a physical extension of Mumbai life. At first, it may appear that ballet, a highly technical dance form characterized by elastically elegant movements, is completely at odds with the raw, urgent energy of the city’s working-class culture. But there’s a montage an hour into the film that depicts the two boys, Nishu and Asif, turning everyday activities into stretching exercises: cleaning, commuting, standing in line, even sleeping. These images demonstrate just how the spatial adversities of Mumbai force its scrappy survivors to be flexible (local trains), light on their feet (mopping floors/windows), patient (standing in line), fit (fast walking) and inadvertently alert (weaving through crowds). Most everyone is a ballet dancer without even knowing it.
It’s worth viewing the “how” of the film through this lens, even as the “what” flits between the tired textural familiarity of Salaam Bombay!, Billy Elliott, Gully Boy and the narrative familiarity of Million Dollar Arm. It’s easy to call the tone “predictable,” but the fact is that there’s no original way to tell an underdog tale any more. Irrespective of whether it’s music, dance, sports or quiz shows, the template remains unchanged because it is what it is: Parental opposition, class/caste conflict, poverty, crabby mentor, grandstanding finale. Life is, for better or worse, nothing but an amalgamation of cinematic stereotypes. As a result, it becomes all about the peg, the alien universe, the art itself – and ballet in Bombay is a galaxy far, far away. It is a world defined by the paradoxical virtues of elegance and ugliness.
I appreciate that their journey is defined not by a life-or-death audition or decisive contest, but by the oft-overlooked formality of passing an American visa interview with no tax records and sources of income. You don’t see many movies dealing with this very real speed breaker
Taraporevala’s film focuses on two characters who are constantly trying to reconcile with the brutal irony that dancing, their desperate escape, is often more painful than the reality that led them to it. The boys are either in emotional motion or physical motion; at times, they can’t tell the difference between the two. Everyone in their vicinity – parents, naysayers, friends, rivals, teachers – is a movie designed to consume them, but their agility to float above the noise is reflected in their training sessions. It is reflected in their boyish attitude towards the burden of being gifted. The question writ large on their sweaty foreheads: Should we dare to dream or dream to dare?
Taraporevala (Little Zizou) soars in voice when the boys soar, but not so much when the film itself moves. She seems to be aware that the narrative can’t afford to feel different: Committing to cliche is better than being forcibly innovative. The intent is reflected in the exemplary actors playing timeworn supporting characters: Vijay Maurya, Kalyanee Mulay as the Hindu parents, Danish Husain and Heeba Shah as the Muslim parents, and Jim Sarbh as the artistic director of the studio. But Taraporevala’s eagerness to unpack, in a brisk two-hour film, each of the three primary journeys – Asif (Achintya Bose, who is essaying Amir Shah, the boy who won the RBS Nadia Nerina Scholarship), Nishu (Manish Chauhan, playing a version of himself) and teacher Saul (Julian Sands, a version of Israeli teacher Yehuda Ma’Or) – costs Yeh Ballet the rooted grit and rhythm that dance movies are built upon.
The pace is uneven, because some of the most crucial scenes are rushed into. For instance, Asif’s parents finally standing up to the small-minded family patriarch is a resolution that should feel earned. But the scene looks like it was shot on a deadline, with the location in danger of being withdrawn. The dialogue is mainstream (“The blood of both Hindus and Muslims is red”) – it demands the dramatic highlighting of such moments. Ditto for Nishu’s parents coming around, in a striking hospital sequence that isn’t composed with the kind of importance it merits. The symmetry of resolutions and conflicts looks more pronounced, and too curt, when there are three separate threads. Julian Sands’ performance as Saul is strangely binary and lacks complexity; he plays to an aura rather than a flesh-and-blood personality. The two boys, Chauhan and especially Bose, are great finds, but even they struggle to look like they’re struggling in the ballet-beginner portions. The fact is that they have already trained for the role (though Chauhan was already a ballet dancer), and pretending to be untrained is like asking an ordinary person to unlearn instinctive activities like walking or breathing. (Related: When Leonardo DiCaprio, a great actor, plays a mediocre actor managing to do a good scene on set in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, it’s as rare as gold dust.)
The opening shot of Yeh Ballet, in fact, is far more culturally evocative than much of the film. The camera soars over the Mumbai skyline, first revealing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link – a symbol of connectivity but also privilege – scored to serene ballet music
Much of the above may read like I’m nitpicking. But it’s the little details and imperfections of a movie – about an art form that strives to create the illusion of primal perfection – that often tend to stick out. For example, I appreciate that their journey is defined not by a life-or-death audition or decisive contest, but by the oft-overlooked formality of passing an American visa interview with no tax records and sources of income. You don’t see many movies dealing with this very real speed breaker, because it usually pales in comparison to the odds that the heroes have already beaten. I also appreciate that the cinematography tells more of the story than the script does.
The opening shot of Yeh Ballet, in fact, is far more culturally evocative than much of the film. The camera soars over the Mumbai skyline, first revealing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link – a symbol of connectivity but also privilege – scored to serene ballet music. As the camera traces the bridge, reaching the adjoining fishing village, the score dissolves into a cacophony of ambient sound: Traffic, people, work, worship. Hip-hop beats fade in as the frame finds a group of rural B-boyers dancing on a fish-drying promenade. Which is to say that the people in their fancy cars using the bridge probably form the ballet-going demographic – they are likely the only ones who can afford the expensive tickets. But for an art form that is traditionally considered upper-class and high-culture, it’s ironic that its artists mostly emerge from the backdrop. When Asif later mentions that the bridge has affected the livelihood of the slums by driving the fish away to Dubai, it’s bittersweet to realize that he embraces a dance form emblematic of flight only to perform for – and earn the applause of – the people on that bridge. And in doing so, it’s not only the “T” in ballet that stays silent.