Sooni Taraporevala on directing Yeh Ballet for Netflix, why it's a love letter to Mumbai, and how Mira Nair has influenced her
Yeh Ballet, starring Manish Chauhan, Achintya Bose and Julian Sands, will premiere on Netflix on 21 February.
In 2017, Sooni Taraporevala captured the story of two male ballet dancers Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah from Mumbai, who dared to dream, in Yeh Ballet. Under the aegis of Yehuda Ma'or, the duo earned scholarships to prestigious dance schools abroad. Tarporevala told their extraordinary journey from a unique 360-degree virtual reality format, which she has now expanded into a coming-of-age film.
Yeh Ballet, produced by Roy Kapur Films, follows Nishu (Chauhan), son of a taxi driver, and Asif (Achintya Bose), his nemesis-turned-friend as they are discovered by a grumpy and eccentric Israeli ballet master Saul (Julian Sands) at a local dance academy. Despite a language barrier, family responsibilities, societal pressures, and a minor hiccup when the boys' visa applications get turned down by the US immigration officials, they finally achieve their goal.
Yeh Ballet is Taraporevala's second stint directing a feature film after her debut, Little Zizou (2008), which won a National Award. She has previously collaborated with Mira Nair on the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, and The Namesake. Taraporevala has also dabbled with photography, and her work is a part of both Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York permanent collection.
Prior to the Netflix premiere of Yeh Ballet on 21 February, Taraporevala discussed her film in an exclusive conversation. Edited excerpts below.
How difficult was it to expand your own documentary into a fiction format?
It was not difficult in the sense that I could do things with the feature film that I couldn't do with the documentary. As you know, the documentary was only 14 minutes, and I had a lot of restrictions — like I did not really have access to their (Chauhan and Shah's) backstories. So as with every script that I write, it's a process. A lot of people inform the process including Sid (producer Siddharth Roy Kapur), and others with whom I share the script. And it always changes through several drafts. Then actors come in, and they bring their own thing in. It's a very organic growth that the script sees.
How was working on Yeh Ballet different from Little Zizou?
The scale here was much larger. We had vanity vans, which we didn't have for Little Zizou. For Little Zizou, our costumes were in a neighbour's house. It was very, very indie. The toys that I had to play with here were much larger, and more exciting. So, for me as a filmmaker, this was a huge leap forward from Little Zizou.
Why was mentioning the religions of your characters important for the narrative of Yeh Ballet?
This true story is an amazing one because in reality it's about a Hindu kid, a Muslim kid, and a Jewish teacher. That's not something I made up. The location where we shot for Nishu's house, we didn't build that. It was really there — a temple, a shrine to Jesus, and a masjid in a row. That for me is this city (Mumbai). This is the city I grew up with, this is diversity I grew up with, and it's something I wanted to show, but in a subtle way. I did not want to make (the story) about that but it was incidentally about that.
Chauhan, who is one of the dancers on whom your documentary is based, also stars in the film. But how did you find the right fit for Asif's role?
I was looking for someone, and Yehuda Ma'or called me for a Danceworx performance, and said, "I have someone I want you to see." Achintya (Bose) was dancing urban contemporary and jazz then, not ballet. When I met him after the performance, I totally fell in love with him. The way he looked, I loved his hair, his eyebrows, his smile. He was the character for me. I had not auditioned him so I had Tess Joseph, my casting director, audition him. I went for that audition, and he was completely natural in front of the camera from the word go.
How important is authenticity to you as a filmmaker and in the telling of the story?
Authenticity was extremely important. I really wanted the film to be an authentic portrayal of the city, of the story.
How has your experience as a photographer helped in the overall look of the film?
I think so because I am a documentary photographer, who was always very interested in street and documenting reality. I don't do advertising work. I don't set up stuff. So the spirit of that kind of work did permeate this film in terms of the look. I am in love with this city. and always have been so I was interested in finding new and exciting locations. I worked very closely with my genius DOP Kartik Vijay to make the film a visual spectacle that is not like a spectacle in terms of large tentpole films but a way to the see the city in a way it hasn't been seen.
Could you share something about the research that went into the making of Yeh Ballet?
I did a lot of research in how ballet has been filmed. So I had a cousin in Chicago send me a whole heap of ballet films. I wanted to see how dance has been shot — so not just ballet, but other dance films. Then of course, I spoke to the real characters extensively. Then once the production was in place, we did extensive location recces to find the best possible locations.
Could you tell me more about the music of the film, and your association with Ankur Tewari?
Ankur is a a fascinating and fantastic person because he is a musician himself. He puts himself in the service of the film. He has composed some songs in the film, and sung them but he introduced me to Salvage Audio Collective, who did our original music score. It's a music score that has varied music. It's not just one thing. Ankur sourced all the songs, and he was relentless in finding stuff.
How has your association with Mira Nair influenced your work?
It's hard to quantify because we have been friends for such a long time. We have been friends before we started working together. The work is informed by the friendship. It's so melded together it's hard to separate the work from the friendship. She was a documentary filmmaker, and I was a documentary photographer. So our interests have always been the same in real life. We both think that real life, sometimes, is as if not more amazing than fiction. That has always informed me. Everything I have written with her has been preceded by research. But then, to make it clear, we have not made documentaries. Salaam Bombay was not a documentary, neither was Mississippi Masala. The Namesake, though I adapted it, it's still a bit different from the book. It's a curious mixture of real life, imagination, and whatever I know about how to create drama.
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