Yeh Ballet could be the best thing you're likely to watch on Netflix this month
There's hope yet - that much-needed clarion call is the overriding theme of Yeh Ballet, a jewel of a film that premiered on Netflix on February 21. Based on the true life stories of two underprivileged Mumbai boys, who had to combat the odds to earn their deserved recognition as ballet dancers, the outcome is not only inspirational but embellished with humour and insights into the world of millennials who dare to dream the impossible dream.
Directed by the ever-sensitive Sooni Taraporevala, Yeh Ballet is her second feature film after the memorable Little Zizou (2008), which was as remarkable for drawing smiles and tears from the audience with a taste for reality-bites cinema.
Taraporevala, who is also most famously-known as the screenwriter of Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Namesake (2006) and Jabbar Patel's Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), is one of India's ace still photographers too. To call her versatile or gifted, believe me, would be an understatement.
It was with a nagging sense of trepidation that I began to watch her latest creation, wary that it could be gratuitously compared to the way more techno-splashy Slumdog Millionaire (2008) or Gully Boy (2019). Fortuitously, I found that any such comparisons are terribly odious. Indeed her snappily-edited 117-minuter is an original, personally researched dekko into the unspoken highs and lows of the contemporary youth.
Devoid of cliches while exposing deeply-entrenched religious prejudices and the expanding divisiveness between the haves and have-nots, Taraporevala deftly double-tasks as writer and director. Throughout, she asserts that come what may, fair weather or foul, those who dare to aspire for unattainable goals will overcome. In the process, she depicts the everyday grind in shanty colonies, middle-class housing societies, cool-shuttered villas and the cloistered dance coaching class where a fair-skinned teacher from America is considered a bait to recruit more students.
Enter ballet guru Saul (veteran British actor Julian Sands), an aged American Jew. Cynical and given to speaking in expletives, Saul survives on memories of past glory as a dancer, and is dismissive about the students who can't manage half a pirouette. That's till he detects sparks of raw talent in the insolent Asif, an expert at b-boying and the retentive Nishu, one of the runners-up of a blingy Bollywood-style TV reality show. Asif's orthodox uncle is against the very notion of dance and music, rants that it is against the faith, while Nishu's taxi driver father wishes him to be a 'normal' college graduate.
The initial hostility between the guru's two chosen candidates for excelling in ballet - which could lead to advanced training in an American dance academy - is related with depth and psychological acuity. In fact, even sidebar characters - like a feisty girl dancer with no name, an overweight slumboy who bleaches his hair golden blonde as a statement of rebellion, and a nervous helper who merely has to switch the music console on and off - are etched with an emotional empathy. There are dips into extreme sentimentality towards the finale but they work, bringing you so close to the hearts and minds of the wannabe ballet champs that you want to reach out to them with a hug.
In every frame, the acting crew is thoroughly inspired, asserting that content mined from reality doesn't require the prop of big star names or glamour. The little big stars of the show - debutants Achintya Bose as Asif and Manish Chauhan as Nishu - are to the camera born, and if there's any justice, they are here to stay as screen actors. Here's a shoutout, then, to casting directors in B-town to take note of them, and also of Mekhola Bose, the nameless girl, whose free form dance moves are jaw-dropping.
All this is reinforced by technical proficiency - the swift pacing of the narration by editor Antara Lahiri, cutting away at the precise points from melodrama, the intricate choreography by Shiamak Dawar, Cindy Jourdain and Vitthal Patil, the pulsating music score dominated by the eclectic riffs of the Salvage Audio Collective and Ankur Tiwari and, above all, the cinematography by Kartik Vijay whose camera has to play the dual role of capturing the beauty of Mumbai (note, especially, the shot of boat bobbing by the bay) while simultaneously zooming in on to its seamier side. The opening shot of the skyscape around the Worli-Bandra sea-link rightaway commands your unblinking attention.
Now that's quite a gung-ho team that Taraporevala has assembled, and it's to her credit that their joint endeavour results in a film which should be watched at one go, without a moment's break.
Think I am overpraising Yeh Ballet? Well, I am willing to stick my neck out. You may or may not agree with my take. Yet, in my view, here's a film experience that comes once in a blue moon. If you haven't yet caught this ode to the triumph of the will, go ahead and make your day.