Yeh Ballet movie review: Sooni Taraporevala cleverly blends the personal with the political, fiction with reality
With Yeh Ballet, Sooni Taraporevala fashions an engaging piece of fiction from her 2017 documentary.
castAchintya Bose, Manish Chauhan, Julian Sands, Vijay Mourya, Jim Sarbh
Three years ago, Sooni Taraporevala made Yeh Ballet, a virtual reality short documentary for Anand Gandhi's Memesys Culture Lab. It chronicled the stories of two boys from Mumbai chawls, a Hindu and a Muslim, who went on to become international ballet dancers.
Now, she has come out with a full-length feature film on the same story, and of the same name, on Netflix. Making a fictional piece out of a documentary is a beast of its own nature. But years of training as a dramatist, coupled with the experience of screenwriting Mira Nair's films like Salaam Bombay, Missisippi Masala, and The Namesake, makes the transition quite smooth for Sooni.
It is also not her directorial debut. In 2009, she made a sweet, small film called Little Zizou, set in the Parsi community of South Mumbai, which she is a part of. However, with Yeh Ballet, Sooni addresses a completely different demographic from the same area, that of the bustling chawls overlooked from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. In fact, the film starts with a moving aerial shot of the sea link, which gradually glides its way to the neighbouring colourful slums of Worli Koliwada.
Buoyant hip-hop music kicks off the film, a bunch of chawl-residing boys performing stunts on the beats. But as the film ends, one cannot help but sway to the melody of an arresting ballet. That is the journey Sooni makes the audience take along with her, this time in the form of a dramatised version of a story she had exposed to the world in 2017.
The drama here is not confined to the 'dream big' template associated with the city. Of course, it is all there owing to the love Sooni harbours for Mumbai, evident from the real locations, Kartik Vijay's stunning aerial shots, and Shailaja Sharma's detailed production design. All these technical elements, that stem from the director's background as a photographer and a documentary filmmaker, point towards a distinct characteristic of Mumbai. Slums and chawls co-exist in close physical proximity with the plush locales, as opposed to other metro cities with clear demarcation of ghettos from palatial buildings.
Sooni mines the most of this proximity to ground her story in reality (after all, it is a true story) rather than going down the lane of "you're-too-poor-to-dream" rut. She underlines the fact that the lack of physical space between the haves and have nots contributes to Mumbai's brand as a city of dreams. A poor chawl-dweller can be the brother of a pizza delivery guy who is on good terms with the receptionist of a sophisticated dance academy. Children from a diverse range of socioeconomic backgrounds can break the ice at a dance school, while their respective parents remain oblivious the whole time.
Similarly, a gifted dancer can land himself at a dance academy, where a ballet teacher, with a keen eye for talent, can spot him and train him to become an international talent.
Unlike Zoya Akhtar's coming-of-age musical Gully Boy from last year, 'dreaming big' is not a sermon or a hot issue of debate between a conventional father and aspirational son. In Yeh Ballet, there is a father (Vijay Mourya, who wrote the Hindi dialogues of both Gully Boy and Yeh Ballet), who is too occupied with his demanding job as a taxi driver to look into his son's 'unattainable' dreams. His arguments are short and his chides are quick, in tune with Antara Lahiri's crisp editing. A terrific Mourya knows the demographic his character is rooted in, and comes across as a doting father when he is not disparaging his son's dreams.
Similarly, there is another father who discourages his son from chasing his musical aspirations because he is brainwashed by his elder brother that 'naach-gaana' is equivalent to 'haraam' (forbidden) in Islam. Sooni uses this angle to cleverly slide in sociopolitical commentary. Several other passing scenes like a Hindu mob attacking a Muslim boy for celebrating Diwali with his community, and the boy's US visa getting rejected without any explanation, also add to the undercurrent of living as a minority in a majoritarian society.
The two boys' dance teacher from Israel, played by British actor Julian Sands, has an interesting response in store when the Muslim boy tells him, "Ballet is bullsh*t," after getting beaten up by the Hindu mob. "Ballet is not bullsh*t. Religious discrimination is bullshit. I experienced it in Israel (where he is from), and moved to America, and realised it's there too. It's everywhere. Dance is what will help us rise above this bullsh*t."
Truer words were never spoken, and better demonstrated. Ankur Tewari's curated music (who did the same job for Gully Boy) and the original score by Salvage Audio Collective smoothen the edges of what would have otherwise been a rough rags-to-riches story. The music is not only easy on the ear but also poetry in motion visually. Shiamak Davar, Cindy Jourdain (former soloist with London's Royal Ballet Company), and Yehuda Maor (the real-life ballet teacher of the two boys who broke out) make the visual of two boys as ballerinos a dazzling subversion of masculinity.
Tess Joseph, who has been Sooni's collaborator since The Namesake, casts relatively unknown faces in the film, with the exception of Mourya, Jim Sarbh (serviceable as the dance academy owner), and Heeba Shah (decent as the Muslim mother). There are as many as six debutants in the film, but the ones who shine the most are certainly the two protagonists, Achintya Bose and Manish Chauhan.
Sooni fashions an engaging piece of fiction from her documentary. It is a tricky job for a filmmaker to separate truth from fiction, but Sooni packs dramatic punch with a story rooted in reality.
Yeh Ballet is now streaming on Netflix.
All images from YouTube.
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