A coming-of-age film about two male ballet dancers, Sooni Taraporevala was so inspired by these boys that she told their story twice
Take a closer look at the films that have dominated box offices in recent times, and you’ll spot class struggle being a common theme. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) took home four awards at the 2020 Oscars, and Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019) was much lauded by critics and audiences alike. Following along the same vein, filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala is now bringing yet another story about class disparity right to your smartphones with her Netflix debut, Yeh Ballet.
By Mihika Agarwal Vogue India
Like Gully Boy, this film explores the passion and creativity that’s hidden in the matchbox houses peppering Mumbai’s streets. A fictional version of Taraporevala’s 2017 documentary by the same name, Yeh Ballet tells the story of two young boys from lower-income families, Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah, portrayed in the film through the characters of Nishu and Asif, respectively. The boys fight classist and religious barriers to make their way into a world you’d never have associated with theirs—the elitist world of ballet. Directed by Taraporevala and produced by Roy Kapur Films, the two-hour feature sees Chauhan playing the character of Nishu, the son of a taxi driver who is reprimanded by his family for his choice of profession. The character is inspired by Chauhan himself, since he went through a similar journey in his own life. The second protagonist in the story is a rebellious teenager character of Asif, who loves hip hop dance and loitering around with his crew. Played by Achintya Bose, this character is inspired by the story of Amiruddin Shah. Asif and Nishu’s destinies collide when they begin training under an Israeli-American ballet teacher, Saul Aaron. This character is based on ballet tutor, Yehuda Maor, who identified and materialised Chauhan and Shah’s potential in real life.
© supriya kantak
Having learnt ballet herself in her early years, Taraporevala was amazed when she first heard about these two boys. “I had tears in my eyes when I first saw these boys in Saint Stanislaus School. I was so thrilled that two boys who came out of nowhere were dancing so well. Despite having learned for so many years with every privilege, from ballet shoes and clothes, these kids were way better than we could ever have been. And that realisation just took my breath away,” said Taraporevala, who had been on a decade-long hiatus after her 2009 film, Little Zouzou.
Sooni Taraporevala and Manish Chauhan on the sets of Yeh Ballet © Netflix
Talking about his motivation for taking on the project, producer Siddharth Roy Kapur highlighted his appreciation for all the critical issues the film addresses—gender stereotypes around a supposedly feminine dance form, and the elitist persona traditionally ascribed to ballet—but there’s one theme that outdid the rest for him. “At the end of the day, it’s just about telling a story of hope and of aspiration. As Sooni often says, talent is so plentiful in our country and can be found everywhere and anywhere. The fact that these boys came from the background that they did, and were able to go out there into the world and perform a dance form that’s considered to be elitist, at least in India, is a tremendous testament to the fact that talent has no boundaries.”
Taraporevala also opened up about how she struggled to get eyeballs for Little Zizou 12 years ago. Kapur had faced similar battles with theatrical distribution for niche films during his time with UTV Motion Pictures and Spotboy. Which is why, having a global platform like Netflix, which boasts an audience of half a billion people across 190 countries across the world, for Yeh Ballet was promising. “What’s happened in the last few years is that the barriers to something being theatrical have actually increased. You need to either be a certain scale in terms of spectacle, have big stars involved or have a high enough concept. Platforms like Netflix give you a chance to tell stories that don’t necessarily have big stars in them, but are equally entertaining and engaging,” Roy Kapur explained.
For Chauhan, the most profound moment in the film was when—spoiler alert—Nishu’s parents finally accepted his life choices, having witnessed a ballet performance that he put forth for a group of patients in a hospital. “Though not in a hospital, that scene actually happened. My dad hugged me and told me to pursue my dreams, adding that he’d even take a loan for my education if needed,” he revealed.