From gully boys to ballerinos

Updated: Feb 23, 2020, 08:09 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

Sooni Taraporevala's new Netflix-original pays tribute to a dance she learnt as a little girl, and two disadvantaged Mumbai lads who made a life from the art

Manish Chauhan plays himself, and Achintya Bose as Amiruddin Shah on the set of Yeh Ballet
Manish Chauhan plays himself, and Achintya Bose as Amiruddin Shah on the set of Yeh Ballet

Sooni Taraporevala went for ballet classes as a little girl, aware of the sweat and pain it demands of dancers. "But, in all those years of training, I had never seen a boy do ballet," says the director-writer-photographer. More than 30 years later, when she watched Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah pirouetting and arabesqueing en pointe, she found herself well up. "They were extraordinary! In fact, way better than most of us who had done ballet for so many years, and had every privilege, which neither of them did. I wanted to tell their story."

And, she has.

Yeh Ballet, a film she has written and directed, released on Netflix last Friday. The film features Chauhan reprising his own part and actor Achintya Bose as Shah. It's Taraporevala's second stint with the subject. In 2017, she made a 14-minute VR documentary with the same title for filmmaker Anand Gandhi's Memesys Culture Lab.

Sooni TaraporevalaSooni Taraporevala

It chronicled the lives of the two dancers, who hail from disadvantaged families and became among the first Indians to receive scholarships to train at prestigious dance schools. While Chauhan went to London's Royal Ballet Academy, Shah trained at the Oregon Ballet Theatre in the US. The experience whet her appetite. There was more to tell. "Although VR was experimental and exciting, I found myself longing to do it the old-fashioned way, where I'm out of the frame and the subject is closer to the camera," she says. While the initial plan was to get Shah on board, it didn't work out since he continues to be in Oregon. But for Chauhan, who is back in the bay, it was about reliving the experience, minus the agony. "The first time the struggle was real; this time, it was fun. I wasn't sleeping hungry. I was eating delicious food and had a cozy bed to go back to," laughs the 26-year-old, who plays a taxi driver's son. Taraporevala, he says, was a "chilled out" director on set. "She allowed us to explore the role on our own. She'd sit back and observe us while she munched on peanuts."

In the film, you see the bitter rivalry between Chauhan and Bose only for it to eventually thaw. Off-screen, the two are like peas in a pod, arriving together on set and hanging out post shoot. "I see a lot of myself in him [Bose]. He is besharam. He doesn't feel shy to voice his ignorance, and has the same hunger to learn as I did," says Chauhan. He admits that he was beginning to get complacent after having reached a level of competency. Bose made him buck up.

Incidentally, Bose was recommended for the role by their Israeli-American ballet teacher Yehuda Maor, who discovered Chauhan and Shah. British actor Julian Sands plays Maor in the film. "It took about eight months for me to perfect ballet. I would watch videos of Amir training to get a sense of his movement and form," says Bose. A few months before the shoot, Taraporevala enrolled the cast for acting workshops to ensure they were well-versed with their characters. "I wanted everyone to be confident and know their characters in and out, so that were no surprises on set. You can be confident only when you're well prepared. It's the reason why I could happily munch on peanuts," Taraporevala laughs. That said, the shoot was physically challenging. Filming in crammed spaces across multiple locations in peak summer would sap them of every bit of energy, she recalls. "I remember, our makeup artist telling me that Bose would sometimes nod off during touch ups."

British actor Julian Sands plays Israeli-American ballet teacher Yehuda Maor, who discovered Chauhan and ShahBritish actor Julian Sands plays Israeli-American ballet teacher Yehuda Maor, who discovered Chauhan and Shah

While Chauhan and Shah's admission at a world-class company was, clearly, no easy feat, it was far from a fairytale once they reached that point. "Initially, it was very difficult. If we were good here, we were no good there," says Chauhan. It took them months of intense practice to perfect their moves and be at par with their counterparts.

Taraporevala has ensured the precision is maintained. "Just because people here may not know enough about ballet, I didn't want to pass off something mediocre. The idea was to make it real; it's a beautiful piece of art and should leave an impact when you are watching [it]."

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