Here's the heart-warming story of a dance troupe from Naigaon who conquered America, all for a colleague who lost his life during rehearsals
There is a temple dedicated to goddess Chandika Mata built against a hillock deep inside Naigaon, a dusty, almost dystopian area on the outskirts of Mumbai. The place comes alive during religious festivals like Holi, when people descend there for a mela that's replete with intricate rangoli. But it's an otherwise humdrum affair for the rest of the year, with devotees making an arduous climb up a flight of steps to pay their respects to the devi. Except, that a group of about 35 young dancers takes over a hall in the premises from 7 pm to 11 pm every night to practise death-defying acrobatic steps that are so stupendous that they were crowned the winners of this year's edition of America's Got Talent: The Champions.
We visit the mandir post 10 pm on Thursday when the troupe — V Unbeatable — has finished rehearsals early. The place is deserted but for two men downing a bottle of strong beer sitting on a concrete circle under a leafy tree. Presently, Swapnil Kiranbhoir arrives, the member who's scheduled to tell us the crew's story. Sitting in the hall that's the epicentre of their fortunes, he narrates how the group of mainly slum children from the neighbouring Bhayandar, Mira Road and Naigaon regions realised a long-standing dream of Vikas Gupta, a colleague of theirs who suffered an accident during rehearsals five years ago, tragically losing his life in the process.
It was Gupta who — along with Omprakash Shankar Chauhan — founded the group in 2013, calling it just Unbeatable. The youngster had one aim — making his parents proud by winning a reality show on TV. But his untimely death meant that it remained an unfulfilled ambition. In fact, such was the despondency that set in after the tragedy that none of the remaining members had the will to carry on. They were too dejected to put on their dancing shoes.
They hold up the AGT trophy after winning the event. Pic/Satej Shinde
But it was Gupta's parents who then rallied them together. Chauhan tells us over the phone, "They called me home one day and told me, 'Beta, if you people quit, who will realise Vikas's dream? You are all the hope he has. So even if it's only for our sake, regroup again, please." Enthused, Chauhan was reinvigorated and set about calling his old crew members back. He says, "I told them, 'Guys, let's do this for Vikas even if you don't want to,' and they agreed." So Unbeatable was back in business, except with the added prefix 'V' in memory of their dear, departed friend.
The group then went about fine-tuning their routines and when they felt ready, applied for Dance Plus, a show on Indian television. But they failed to clear auditions for three consecutive years. Chauhan thus realised that he needed to up the game. So he approached Kiranbhoir, who had a separate crew, and invited him to join forces using the next season of Dance Plus as bait. The latter came on board, taking the group literally to new heights given the impossible flips that the youngsters started practising. They got through the auditions for the show the next year, but were eventually ranked fourth. It's not what the dancers had hoped for, but it did help them go viral online and — unbeknownst to them — they caught the attention of the US-based producers of America's Got Talent (AGT).
Omprakash Shankar Chauhan
Kiranbhoir tells us sitting in the temple's hall, "When they first sent us an invitation over email, we thought that someone was playing a prank on us. So, we ignored it. But a week later, they sent the invitation again. We then realised that this was serious and sought the advice of a senior, who told us, 'Are you guys mad? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and all you're doing is sitting on it.'" So the group hurriedly sent a positive reply and set about the uphill task of sorting out their passports and visas, completing the formalities in the nick of time, a day before the first time they would ever board a plane.
Now, imagine this. A long line of youngsters arrives at the immigration counter in LA. Only two of them can speak in English. The officer asks them their purpose. "Why are you here when you don't even know our language?" he says. So the person standing in front of the queue shows him their letter of invitation from AGT.
"Oh, so you're here to dance? Then why don't you show me your moves and prove it?" And the crew member then breaks into an impromptu jig at the crowded immigration counter, impressing the officer enough for him to let the others pass through with no questions. That's the sort of alien territory that the V Unbeatable members found themselves in.
But they knew what they were there for. They were there to ensure that Gupta's death wasn't in vain. So after the initial excitement of travelling abroad had died down, they put their heart and soul into practising for the big day. It arrived. V Unbeatable took the stage and with a rousing chant of 'Ganpati bappa moriya," started a routine that brought the live audience to its feet. The ghost of placing fourth still hadn't stopped haunting them, though, since after Dance Plus, that was their eventual rank in AGT Season 14, too. But being one of the top-10 finalists, they got automatic entry into 'The Champions' segment, a follow-up to the main show.
This time, there was no looking back. Despite the competition, which was "khatarnak" in Kiranbhoir's words, the group from Naigaon was crowned the champions. There is a YouTube video of the moment they were declared the winners. Each and every one of them is teary-eyed. The youngest of the lot, 13-year-old Abhishek, even leaps off stage and lies down on the ground to soak in the moment. And all of them are sporting jerseys with the name 'Vikas' emblazoned on the back. That, really, is the most poignant part because winning a major, global reality show can be measured in the $25,000 they collectively pocketed. But fulfilling the only dream that their deceased colleague had? That's priceless.
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