The sun had set, and the orange lanterns and strung lights bobbed on the salty, sticky summer breeze at Worli Koliwada. Dancers in bright festive wear made their way through the serpentine lanes of the urban village to reach the sets of the Netflix original film Yeh Ballet – bedecked to shoot a Diwali celebration.
“This is a new perspective of the sea link from this side. It hasn’t been seen much on screen,” remarked producer Siddharth Roy Kapur, nodding towards the bridge over the glittering sea. His company, Roy Kapur Films is backing the project, the sophomore directorial feature of Padma Shri awardee Sooni Taraporevala, after their collaboration on The Namesake (2006) – a Mira Nair film built on Taraporevala’s screenplay. Yeh Ballet, inspired by a true story, charts the journey of two young men named Nishu (Manish Chauhan) and the rebellious Asif (Achintya Bose) with Mumbai working class backgrounds pirouetting their way into international ballet schools under the guidance of an the ageing and eccentric Israeli-American ballet teacher – Saul (Julian Sands).
As the music blared over the speakers, the director stayed rather quiet while choreographer Shiamak Davar took the reins and guided actors Achintya and Mekhola Bose as they spiritedly danced across the set with the camera focused on them, with hordes of people cheering them on. On the sidelines, Sands and Chauhan laughed and moved to the music. “This is the Diwali celebration that the boys take their teacher to, and for the first time he’s dancing Bollywood,” shared writer-director Taraporevala, before pointing to Mekhola and adding without giving much away, “Her character is an enigma. She and Asif have a bond that’s based on dance.”Outside of ballet and Bollywood, the film pulls in elements from a number of dance-styles, “Because the real boys come from a hip-hop [and b-boying] background, and Bollywood is all around us. [So] the film has got a full palette of very incongruous dances and music,” said Taraporevala.
The director has offered a glimpse into this story before – in her 2017 14-minute documentary of the same name. “Dance is a rich person’s indulgence,” said Chauhan in the short (who plays himself in the Netflix film), over footage of him and young dancer Amiruddin Shah practicing their moves on a local train. The director picked Chauhan, Shah and their ballet master Yehuda Ma’or’s story to translate into a short Virtual Reality documentary, shot in 360-degrees, for filmmaker Anand Gandhi’s VR Lab. “It totally fascinated me to read and hear about their stories – [seeing] what they achieved. [Ballet] is a very elite and niche world, [and] no boys dance ballet. [Yet] kids who never heard classical music [became] so good in two years that they got a scholarship to [London’s] The Royal Ballet [and the American Oregon Ballet Theatre] is just a phenomenal thing,” said the director, before continuing, “The documentary short film [was] a completely different beast from writing [and directing] a feature film. [With the feature] you take a kernel of truth and kind of blow it up.”
Fact meets fiction
A beaming Chauhan sits on the intersection between fact and fiction – essaying the character based on his story. When asked about his fairytale-like journey, Chauhan admitted, “I never wanted to become a dancer. I would hide in the school bathroom [when we had to dance]. But as a teenage boy I was introduced to power moves, and backflips seemed cool.” Later, he saved up money, joined Ashley Lobo’s Danceworx Academy, and met Ma’or who saw the spark in his student. “I don’t know what he saw,” laughed Chauhan, “I didn’t know ballet, my English was bad, and all the [ballet] terminologies are in French. Everything he said [went over my head]!” Ma’or once saw Chauhan practicing after class in front of the mirrors, said Chauhan, “So he stayed after class with me the next day, saying ‘I’ll teach you, because you’re doing it all wrong!’”
Achintya stepped in to play Asif (who is based on Shah) since Shah was (and is) training at the Royal Ballet School. “The research,” said Achintya, taking a second to think about the work that went into essaying his character, “was partially done. If there is an example that needs to be given [in a Danceworx class], it’s either Manish, or Amir, or both of them.” Taraporevala revealed that Achintya trained in ballet for about six months under Cindy Jourdain, and also learnt b-boying for the role. His background, however, is in contemporary and jazz. Achintya also added that Asif is significantly different from the quiet, focused Shah.
For Sands (A Room with a View, 1985, and Leaving Las Vegas, 1995), Saul’s story (based on Ma’or’s) carried a delightful sense of destiny. “[The film] is about a pattern revealing itself as the carpet is unrolled – there is an inevitability to [the] journey if you follow your dream. Saul is seeking fulfilment and strikes gold [here].” He found that thread of inevitability in his story too – from being enchanted by Laurence Olivier’s performance in Richard III (1955) as an eight-year-old to joining London’s Central School of Speech and Drama around a decade later. The film, Taraporevala shared, has around 55 speaking roles, and the cast includes Jim Sarbh, Danish Husain, and Vijay Maurya.