Within the few opening minutes of the new Netflix film Yeh Ballet (2020), director Sooni Taraporevala efficiently establishes the texture and underlying associations of the film. A stunning aerial view of the Mumbai-Worli sea link, a symbol of high privilege, leads to, with an explicit attempt to juxtapose, the colour, chaos, and crudity of the seemingly subterranean chawls of the city. Caterwauling fisher women and foot tapping talent merge. There is no indulgent meandering at this point; Taraporevala makes a point about the glimmers of incredulous hope as a character watches a dance on reality TV, and crisply moves to address the communal layer, an undertone of the film which always simmers but never breaks through menacingly.
Asif (Achintya Bose) and Nishu (Manish Chauhan) are born into situations and families hostile to their vigorous will and ambition. Asif is the more rambunctious, wild and the livewire brand; Nishu is mild mannered, tempered and seems to have made peace with his family’s expectation that are at complete odds with his desire, while secretly, quietly accomplishing his pursuits, step by step. Asif’s uncle, who financially supports his family, is the controlling force, the decision maker and who holds his parents under his domineering say, labels his dream of dancing as “haram”, anti religious or anti God. But Asif doesn’t allow himself to be impinged or limited by this opposition. He seems to have already broken out of the mould of compliance. Whereas, Nishu can’t harden his resistance. He is more obliging, kind, trapped in a particular framework of servility which is especially striking when the mentor, Saul Aaron (Julian Sands) enters the narrative and fate conspires to put both the boys through the usual cycle of mutual spite-turned-friendship. Asif might be the absolute spitfire but it is ultimately Nishu who stages the bravest rebellion and leaves to find his place. Both are driven by an unstoppable aspiration, and as Saavio (Jim Sarbh), the head of the dance academy, remarks, dance sticks to Asif like chewing gum to his hair.
The mentor Saul is a repulsive man afflicted by a stubborn favouritism but he adjusts his disposition accordingly. He is mined a lot for comic relief by Taraporevala, maybe a little too much for an international audience. We sense he is deeply perturbed by something when we see him in his place alone, checking his mail restlessly. Slowly, the rapport between Asif and Nishu gains a lovely intimacy and warmth that is utterly genuine and the three when together feel like a family in itself.
There is this wide eyed disarmingly charming innocence about Manish Chauhan. His transparency is winsome. But he struggles with some dialogue delivery in pivotal scenes especially when he stands up to his parents. Another key scene where he asserts himself to Saul finds him in a more improved vein. The real star of the film is Achintya Bose. He inhabits Asif with this fierce dynamic vigour and electric charisma. He balances an excellently energetic presence with an effective summoning of crushing loss, the latter coming out hauntingly when a close friend dies. His sadness envelops the frame and didn’t require a tacky VFX nightmare scene to back it up. Achintya is a glorious find and although it is just March, I am willing to bet good money, this is the debut of the year.
Special mention must be made also of Mekhola Bose who plays the girl from the slum who Asif is fond of. Mekhola plays her with such incredible spunk and steals whichever scene she is in, and Taraporevala, while not handing her an arc, manages her track very cleverly and subtly, giving her a beautiful final scene. While she does these insane moves, her spirit is captivating.
Taraporevala’s film is adapted from her own 2017 short documentary, which drew from real life account of the two boys and their teacher. Achintya plays Amiruddin Shah, while Chauhan plays himself. In interviews, Taraporevala said she needed the complexity and range of a feature to fully relay her interest in the subject. She situates her story in the vast landscape of ambition, class divide, and communal extremism. She isn’t complacent with just one story of two dancers breaking barriers to anchor their dreams in reality, but constantly locates more subtexts and narrative add on. Some might argue she puts too much on her plate that the layering isn’t consistent and she doesn’t give adequate attention to any; there is an eagerness to say a lot which is clipped by time constraints. I do not agree, I like that Taraporevala is a greedy storyteller, she could have organically woven it all together but it does enable a richer, nuanced understanding of the socio-political climate in which the central narrative of pursuing dreams plays out.
Yeh Ballet suffers from a lack of gradual development toward certain key resolutions, which have at most, two curt, short scenes devoted to them. It feels rushed. Characters come around rather quickly, and while the protagonist might have embattled for long to get to that point, the turning point gives the impression of a lightning flash of karmic enlightenment that abruptly befall whoever antagonising. As Nishu’s father, Vijay Maurya (who has also written the Hindi dialogues) lifts an otherwise unremarkable character and captures the rush of paternal love movingly. The emotional generosity and the depth of feeling he brings makes the turnaround scene utterly believable. There is such tenderness when he wondrously asks his son, “Are you a deer or a human being?”
Of course, the film also tries to nudge at the gender stereotypes associated to the dance form and ventures into classist implications but Taraporevala thankfully refrains from any peachiness. There are also environmental concerns raised and she manages to insert all these with an authentic love for the city. Yeh Ballet is rooted in geographical specificity; cinematographer Kartik Vijay captures the squalor of the slums and Mumbai’s many beauties with equal precision. This is no outsider’s gaze looking in; this is an example of a storyteller allied completely with her subject.
The climactic dance scene is a thing of beauty. The boys leap and pirouette with gorgeous ease and spectacular grace, and Ankur Tewari’s “Tootay Nahin Hum” adds to the dreaminess. Yeh Ballet finds its voice particularly when it concentrates absolutely on the singularity of the moment, when either of the boys tries steps, either on a train, an empty room or in the morning queue for a wash tap.
The film does not attain a crescendo, maybe in the final dance scene, nor the rousing power of underdog triumph, but it’d be unfair and silly to have such expectation because this isn’t a standard issue underdog story. Taraporevala has not written all the strands towards a predominantly emotional outcome of absolute victory. It is moving and inspiring and full of life and leaves a sweetly satisfying aftertaste.