There’s a joy in watching and rooting for protagonists in tales that celebrate underdog victory – at least, for the poetic justice, they ensure. Regardless of the genre, they belong to, they provide a sense of hope that goodwill and determination can conquer all odds. Yeh Ballet, helmed by Sooni Taraporewala, the screen-writer of Salaam Bombay, takes the viewer to an all-familiar terrain of one of the world’s biggest slums – the Dharavi – telling the story of two gifted boys Asif and Nishu, blessed with an innate ability to dance.
Though the premise may remind you of Gully Boy, Yeh Ballet is a spirited film with greater emotional depth minus all the fluff of a star-driven outing. The web-original is a cinematic extension of the documentary (by the same name and helmed by the same filmmaker three years ago) about two Indian dancers hailing from Dharavi, who made it to one of the topmost grad schools for ballet in the US. Incidentally, Manish Chauhan, one among the two dancers featuring in the documentary, plays a role modelled after him (Nishu) in the film.
Asif is a rebel teenager of sorts, excels at b-boying, roams around with his wastrel friends and does petty jobs, often inviting the ire of his uncle, a stickler for religious norms and principles. His parents are under the mercy of his uncle for financial reasons, owing to which Asif isn’t given wings to fly high. Nishu amid an equally hapless setting is the son of a taxi driver and a doting mother who leave no stone unturned to get their ward educated. They do little to further their son’s interest in dance, while Nishu is on the hunt to make a career out of art, with timely help from his sister. A workshop by Israel based Saul Aaron changes the trajectory of their lives forever.
On paper, though the rags-to-riches (well, not literally) story seems all too familiar, there’s a lot of heart and honesty with which it unfolds visually. The mood of the film remains upbeat despite the struggle of its protagonists to make it big. The humour is very casual and life-like, largely conversational. The dance portions aren't overstuffed with details – but that isn't to dismiss the authenticity in the ballet workshop sequences. The upper class-lower class divide is touched upon in a matter of fact-ly fashion minus the sentimentality or victim card-playing. The parents aren't villainous caricatures either.
The soul of the film lies in the heartwarming bond that the master and two of his ever-quarrelling yet favourite students Asif and Nishu share. Saul becomes a foster parent of sorts to them, gently nudging them towards their goals, perhaps seeing a bit of himself in them. The filmmaker also doesn’t miss the opportunity to discuss the polarised political climate in India. There's a subtly-blossoming romance in the lives of the protagonists but the love of the boys is more for a dance form than anything else. The ending of the film isn't exactly logical but the aftertaste it leaves is sweet.
Unlike most dance-based films where the cast comes up with earth-shattering moves but fails to strike an emotional chord, here are two youngsters Manish Chauhan and Achintya Bose who’ve made a genuine attempt to lend credibility to their performances. Well, it’s literally poetry in motion when they step on the dance floor – they have the right mix of energy and grace that makes their on-stage acts spirited and soulful at the same time. Julian Sands plays the on-screen taskmaster to perfection with a spontaneous, gestural performance that steers the narrative towards an adrenaline-pumping finale.
Faisal Husain, Heeba Shah, Jim Sarbh make the most of their minimal screen time, contributing to the film’s feel-good vibe. Yeh Ballet's earthy visuals and chirpy music set an adept backdrop for the film. The filmmaking finesse, the unconventionality of ballet being explored as a cinematic device in an Indian context, is bound to ensure it a good shelf life in the digital space.