The Netflix series Yeh Ballet examines kindness beneath sordid everydayness

Sooni Taraporevala’s new film is a tale of the resilience and kindness buried under sordid everydayness
Right from the word go, with an evocative shot that opens with Mumbai’s Bandra-Worli Sea Link and then zeroes in on a group of teenage boys b-boying by the shore, director Sooni Taraporevala establishes that her new film is a portrait of a city and people well-loved. These teenagers, who have patches of their wild hair dyed blonde, fear nothing except the women who chase them away. They want the space cleared so they can dry fish where the boys dance.

Among these shaggy-haired boys who impress with their skills in the opening scenes of Yeh Ballet is Asif (Achintya Bose). His family lives in Mumbai’s slums and struggles to make ends meet. Elsewhere, in circumstances not very different from Asif’s, is Nishu (Manish Chauhan) who’s been going behind his parents’ backs to compete in dance shows. A love for dance and a burning desire to rise above their less-than-mediocre lives is what binds them when they are brought together by Israeli-American ballet teacher Saul Aaron (Julian Sands). 

Besides newcomers Bose and Chauhan, the film also stars Jim Sarbh, Vijay Maurya and Heeba Shah, and a host of other promising actors. 

Now streaming online as a Netflix Original, Yeh Ballet is screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala’s second outing as a director (she made Little Zizou in 2008). With due credit to cinematographer Kartik Vijay, Yeh Ballet is a beautiful coming of age story that shines in its portrait of Mumbai. Adding to this is the fact that the film is inspired by true events. The film’s lead characters, the boys who love to dance as well as their teacher, are all based on living, breathing people who’ve influenced a generation of youngsters to reportedly flock to dance academies in Mumbai. 

One wonders how inspired the characters really are, especially with the teacher Saul’s constant state of annoyance. He’s a man so bitter and agitated that Nishu has to convince aggrieved locals that his teacher is unwell and is physically in pain. This is a lie, but it gets a few laughs. 

Taraporevala takes upon herself the great challenge of tackling multiple themes in the film: religious intolerance, poverty, classism. Then there’s ballet, an elite dance form unheard of in the environment the boys grow up in. At least one of them has to fight off stereotypical criticisms about ballet’s femininity. The occasionally abrupt edges to the film are perhaps because there wasn’t enough time to flesh all these themes out in 117 minutes.

Nevertheless, if for nothing else, the arresting sight of the two young dancers soaring across the stage mid-routine makes one wish the film was being shown on the big screen. Such is their skill (in real and reel life) that even Nishu’s once-apathetic father remarks, “Tu aadmi hai ki hiran (Are you a man or deer)?”  

One has to also acknowledge Taraporevala’s sensitivity as a filmmaker. Despite numerous scenes set in Mumbai’s slums, she’s ensured the film doesn’t stray anywhere near poverty porn. It’s instead a picture of the many ways one chooses to survive in an unequal society.  

Stories inspired by true events, and even fictionalised tales with heroes overcoming great odds, often fall prey to completely writing out the big and small acts of kindness that shape so many of our lives. This is where Taraporevala shines, in tenderly knitting together the efforts of those in the “supporting cast”, in acknowledging the kindness of almost-strangers. And this she does without diminishing the resilience shown by the protagonists of the story. 

One can only wish more lives could have second beginnings, such as the ones in Yeh Ballet’s ending.

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