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Still of 'Yeh Ballet' Image Credit: Netflix

You could easily glide into the much-dreaded voyeuristic, poverty-porn territory if your film is that quintessential triumph of the underdogs tale who rise from the Mumbai slums.

But writer-director Sooni Taraporevala who spearheaded the heart-warming and genuinely funny Hindi-language feature ‘Yeh Ballet’ streaming on Netflix now has no such fears of it being reduced to Western exotica. ‘Yeh Ballet’ is a stirring film that documents the lives of two young boys from poor homes in Mumbai who make it big in ballet, a Western dance form that’s perceived as elitist and exclusive.

Ask her if she worried about appeasing the pain-perverts, she claimed she never makes a film to appease anyone in particular.

“I take umbrage of the fact that Indians are affecting by films showing poverty abroad, but they are not affected by the fact of poverty itself. People who raise these objections want to paper over that reality,” said Taraporevala in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid.

In the past, director Danny Boyle has been accused of glorifying poverty in his Oscar-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, a story of a slum dweller who wins millions in a quiz show.

Director Taraporevala compares such allegations to building a wall to hide the slums in India before US President Donald Trump’s visit to India now.

“It is the same analogy. Do something about the slums first before you begin attacking the filmmakers for showing that reality. Even after so many years of independence we still have so much of it [poverty] and that’s a greater offence,” said Taraporevala, adding that the divide between the have and have-nots are getting bigger in India.

“Address that before you address anything else. Address the poor health care first. I can go on and on about this issue,” said Taraporevala.

Produced by Siddharth Roy Kapur Films (RKF), ‘Yeh Ballet’ is the incredible true-life story of two boys from the slums of Mumbai who take the world of international ballet by storm. Achintya Bose and Manish Chauhan are cherry-picked by their Israeli-American mentor Yehuda Maor to try their hand at professional ballet. Despite being poor, they triumph over their grim reality and achieve a feat of securing admissions to prestigious global ballet institutes like London’s Royal Ballet Academy and the Oregon Ballet Theatre.

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Achintya Bose plays Amiruddin Shah. Image Credit: Netflix

Taraporevala, known for her award-winning writing on ‘Salaam Bombay’, ‘Mississippi Masala’ and ‘The Namesake’, believes her full-length feature ‘Yeh Ballet’ will resonate with everyone and prove that talent can be found in the most unlikely places. Excerpts from our interview with the director. We discuss her new film, the challenges of finding an actor who’s also an ace dancer and more:

What should we know about ‘Yeh Ballet’?

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Manish Chauhan in 'Yeh Ballet'. Image Credit: Netflix

It’s inspired by a true story. It is not a documentary and is a vision of a film that shows that amazing talent can found in an incongruous place. The title talks about the combination of two worlds: ‘Yeh’ [this] signifies the Indian world and ballet belongs to another world. It’s a unique story.

Oscar-winning movie like ‘Parasite’ spoke about class warfare and inequality. Does your film also tackle it too?

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Achintya Bose and British actor Julian Sands. Image Credit: Netflix

Yes, definitely. There’s that aspect of it. Their teacher [payed by Julian Sands] even says in the movie: ‘Just because they are poor it doesn’t mean they don’t get to have hopes’. It took a teacher coming from abroad to spot their talents and nurture it.

Did you shoot the movie in Mumbai entirely and how did you go about casting?

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A still from 'Yeh Ballet'. Image Credit: Netflix

The movie was shot entirely on location. Our only set created was the dance studio. We have very exciting locations and people from Mumbai may not have even seen many of those locations. I wanted it to be vibrant. It is not set in Dharavi [Asia’s largest slums] and it is not grey or grim. It is full of colour and life. The casting was done by my wonderful casting director Tess Joseph. There were 54 speaking roles and she cast most of them. Once you see the film, you will realise that there are six debuts in this film and I am proud of that.

Regarding Julian Sands as the teacher, I had read an interview with him in The Guardian and he just seemed like the correct person for the role. The moment he heard about his role, he said yes and was excited. It was a great support. It is wonderful to get that from an actor and is wonderful that you don’t have to chase them or persuade them to get on your journey.

When a movie is set in a poor locality and talks about India’s reality of class divides, there’s a danger of pandering to western stereotypes of what India is. Were you aware of that?

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'Yeh Ballet' Image Credit: Netflix

I have never done anything that panders to anyone. I have always written stories that I think should be told as authentically as possible. It is a subject that is relatable in the west. Ballet became big in the West with ‘Billy Elliot’. Just like that, this movie is going to introduce ballet to India because not many people know about ballet. Ballet seems to have bypassed India.

So you made sure that your film isn’t reduced to poverty porn and did you struggle during that process?

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'Yeh Ballet' Image Credit: Supplied

I ensured that by actually focusing on the characters and families and by treating them the way I would wish to be treated. I was very clear about my intentions and motivations, so there was no struggle in that sense. But I resist this. 

Are the main leads actors or are they ballet dancers in real life?

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Director Taraporevala and Manish Chauhan, who plays himself in the film. Image Credit: Netflix

They weren’t actors. The older ballet dancer Manish plays himself in this film and he has been a ballet dancer for six years. But the younger boy in real life was studying at the Royal Ballet and it was not possible for him to act in a film because it’s an intensive course at Royal Ballet. I was very worried and wondered how will I find someone who can dance ballet, breakdance and act. But Yehuda Maor introduced me to Achintya Bose whom I fell in love with instantly. Achintya has been a dancer for over six years. Fortunately, when we auditioned him he was very natural in front of the camera. After that, I never looked back. He was trained in contemporary dance, but we made him train for ballet and b-boying [athletic form of street dance]. We conducted acting workshops too.

What do you want the audience to take away from ‘Yeh Ballet’?

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Manish Chauhan. Image Credit: Netflix

Dream big, but work hard is my take away from this film and that talent can be found in the most unusual places. Someone just needs to spot it and nurture it. In India, there are street performers who are so good at gymnastics. If somebody would put them in a gymnastics team and train them, they could be a class apart. But nobody is doing it. It’s all about opportunities.


Don’t Miss It!

‘Yeh Ballet’ is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below:

Did you know?

The director took ballet dance lessons, but isn’t very good at it. “When I learnt ballet, I wasn’t good at all. It was very exclusive and elitist and no boy danced ballet at that time. It was intriguing to me and when I saw the boys for the first time, I had tears in my eyes because I was so taken aback and was blown away by them,” said director Sooni.