Cast: Manish Chauhan, Achintya Bose, Amiruddin Shah, Vijay Maurya, Kalyanee Mulay
Director: Sooni Taraporevala
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Scripted and helmed by Sooni Taraporevala, Yeh Ballet is a dance movie backed by consistent writing and technical solidity. But it wouldn't be half the film it is without the two lead actors - ballet dancer Manish Chauhan (playing a fictional avatar of himself) and newbie Achintya Bose (in the role of Amir Shah, a slum boy who won the Royal Ballet School's Nadia Nerina Scholarship in 2017).
Yeh Ballet, a Netflix original film, is Taraporevala's first narrative feature since her 2008 directorial debut, Little Zizou, and the second venture of Siddharth Roy Kapur's production banner (after The Sky Is Pink).
The film pirouettes around two exceptionally nimble-footed Mumbai working-class lads who soar beyond the negativity of their modest lives when a tetchy ballet master takes them under his wing and helps them actualize their dream.
In ballet, minimalism and exuberance co-exist. The former strain isn't Bollywood's forte. The latter is in consonance with the broader attributes of popular Hindi cinema. But this film conjures up its own unique brand of magic. It artfully orchestrates the tools and components at its disposal. Taraporevala modulates tone and texture with deft touches.
Just one quibble: the grit and grime of the world that the protagonists inhabit is glossed over. But the boys' doggedness - it constitutes the spine of the film - isn't. The screenplay harmonizes formal sparseness with youthful verve. It fills out a thin storyline with understated drama. The high points are the pivotal family confrontations and reconciliations that stop, or propel, the heroes.
The narrative arc (grinding poverty, impossible dreams, daunting odds, firm resolve, rousing finale and eventual triumph) holds no surprises. But astute harnessing of the limited plot points facilitates an uplifting entertainer where the process as well as the output are evidence of an unerring eye for detail.
Yeh Balle is inspired by a "true story" that was the subject of Taraporevala's VR documentary made in 2017 for Memesys Culture Lab. The fiction feature expands on the lives of 20-something Nishu (Chauhan) and teenager Asif Beg (Bose).
Chauhan and Bose add up to a delightfully energetic duet informed with flamboyance and confidence, both of which are tempered with keen intelligence and a sense of awareness of what the script demands.
Before they know it, the two boys are on to something that promises to change their lives for good. Under the watchful eye of Saul Aaron (English actor Julian Sands, playing an approximation of the Mumbai-based ballet teacher Yehuda Ma'Or), they negotiate many a pitfall and setback, not the least of which hinges on how tough it is for impoverished boys with no bank accounts to get a visa to attend an American ballet school.
The sedate Nishu and the frisky Asif are poles apart. They start off on the wrong foot, apprehensive, and even contemptuous, of each other. But as their dreams converge, they begin to bond and push each other to excel.
This isn't a particularly steep climb for Taraporevala, writer of such memorable films as Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and The Namesake. She keeps the screenplay simple although Nishu and Asif's struggle has multiple layers. Class and religious divides threaten to bog them down, as do the mistrust and disapproval of their parents.
Nishu is the only son of a taxi driver. Asif's family lives off a modest metal-welding shop. Nishu goes to college and his parents (Vijay Maurya, who has written the film's Hindi dialogue, and Kalyanee Mulay) hope that he will one day land a decent job and change the family's fortunes.
The more rebellious of the two, the younger Asif, with his rambunctious drifter friends, works for a local gangster when he is not b-boying. His elder brother, a pizza delivery boy, tips him off about Saul's arrival in town. Asif reluctantly enrolls in the Mumbai Dance Academy.
One of his friends, fleeing from the police, dies. Asif is gutted. He trims his unruly mop of coloured hair, dons butt shorts, slips into a pair of ballet shoes and decides to give a new life a shot.
An uncle warns Asif's father (Danish Husain) and mother (Heeba Shah) that dance is 'haraam'. To add to his woes, the boy develops feelings for a girl (Mekhola Bose), who shares his passion for dance. Their growing proximity lands Asif in trouble. He is Muslim, she is Hindu.
Asif has to reckon with another significant problem: language. His patter is strictly street-level. He does not know a word of English. Everything he says has to be translated for Saul. And every line Saul speaks is beyond his comprehension. Ironically, it is this language barrier that helps Asif drift close to Nishu, who knows enough English to communicate with Saul.
Nishu, too, faces inevitable impediments over his friendship with a female student at the academy, Neena (Sasha Shetty), who offers to help him pick up the finer points of ballet. The two have nothing in common except for their love for the dance form. Nishu sleeps in the muggy, mosquito-infested basement under the dance hall; Neena has a private dance studio at home. The distance between him and her is well-nigh unbridgeable.
"The only escape is dance," Saul says to the two boys as the challenges mount. "If everybody danced, the world wouldn't be so crazy." Sadly, everybody doesn't dance and the world is as crazy as hell, which makes Nishu and Asif's task all the more onerous.
No dance form is as beautiful as ballet, Neena says to Nishu, who, to begin with, does not know that the "t" in the word is silent. "It is like flying like an angel in some beautiful dream," she says as she shows Nishu a video of a ballet performance on her mobile phone. Anybody who has mastered ballet has reached the peak of Mount Everest, says Nisha. "I'll go to the peak," replies Nishu.
As a metaphor, flying is integral to Yeh Ballet. It is indicated both in the visual design and in the dialogue and the action. The film opens with an aerial view of Mumbai, with a camera gliding over the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, floating gently over the skyline, and finally settling on an opening in a fishermen's slum where we see Asif and his pals dancing with unbridled abandon. The cemented patch is meant for drying fish. The boys are soon shooed away.
When Yeh Ballet ends, the trajectory is the exact opposite. A passenger aircraft takes off into the night sky and the camera peeps out as the plane gains height, offering a view of the bright, glittering lights of Mumbai below.
While Sands, Chauhan and Bose lead the cast with impressive aplomb, the supporting actors are just as good. Sasha Shetty, a talented dancer, serves as an ideal foil to Chauhan. The loose-limbed Mekhola Bose, real-life drummer-turned-waacking phenomenon, stands tall. Jim Sarbh as the wisecracking dance academy boss makes an impact although the role is no more than an extended cameo.
The craftsmanship on show is of the highest order. The principal technicians - cinematographer Kartik Vijay, editor Antara Lahiri, sound designer Udit Duseja and production designer Shailaja Sharma - pull their weight without a slip-up.
Yeh Ballet captures the beauty of a dance form while demonstrating the power of solid, soulful storytelling.
(Yeh Ballet streams on Netflix from February 21)