Yeh Ballet (Netflix)
Starring: Achintya Bose, Manish Chauhan, Julian Sands
Written & Directed by Sooni Taraporevala
Rating: *** (3 stars)
Sooni Taraporevala who has written many of Mira Nair’s works should just concentrate on writing. Her directorial debut Little Zizou was at best, an oddity. Ten years later she returns with Yeh Ballet which is not about the Parsee community (though there are a couple of Parsis in the picture) and is very much in the league of Danny Boyle’s supremely touristic Slumdog Millionaire. But lacking Boyle’s sizzling synergy.
In fact, the foreigner’s gaze on Indian slums is so prominent here, this could well be a part of Danny Boyle’s slum-porn franchise. The poor from the Mumbai slums (who are not the poor in the sense of say, the poor on the streets of Chhattisgarh) are shown to be goodhearted blustering busybodies who have accepted their economic deprivations with the joy of a woman who decides to enjoy the sex with her alcoholic brutal husband.
There are repeated evocations of the poor-are-noble premise while the rich are often shown to be mean and insensitive. Check out the snooty mother of one of the female ballet dancers who looks at our slumboy hero like something that the cat dragged in and wonders if ballet has a reservation quota. The film wallows in its own self-righteousness, portraying the slum kids as bindaas, and what have-you.
Subtlety is a leading casualty in the flurry to project the two protagonists in all their aspirational glory. Nishu (Manish Chauhan) and Asif (Achinyta Bose) come across well as two squares in a circle. These actors clearly enjoy their dancing far more than the trite narrative allows them to.
Their initiation into ballet has a quality of crude irony to it. I mean, who associates ballet with slumboys? It’s like feeding caviar to urchins, champagne to hooch drinkers, or whatever. Ms Tarapore never really gets over the irony of it. Almost every frame is clothed in the glow of wondrous amusement. The tone suggests a kind of incredulity we feel when we fund our house help’s child’s education and can’t stop feeling saintly about it.
A bit of restraint in the rags-to-riches format would have gone a long way in making Yeh Ballet look more sincere and less sanctimonious. Some situations in the film are plainly tactless. Jim Sarbh (in an underwritten part which the actors owns) gets all wink-wink when the American ballet teacher Saul Aaron (Julian Sands) declares in all innocence that he will “have” the two young ballet heroes.
“I don’t sleep with my students,” Saul Aaron bellows in what is clearly a moment of unnecessary innuendo.
This is the coming-of-age story not just of two underdogs but also their American ballet coach who is wary of all things Indian when he lands in Mumbai. By the time the film ends, Saul is like a Mother Teresa of the ballet world.
Somewhere in the back of the plot bustling with action, there is a Hindu-Muslim angle too. Ms Taraporevala’s insistence on ceaseless activities in the narration is mildly annoying and exhausting. But when the two young heroes get on the floor to dance they make us forget all the discomforts perpetrated by the hyper-active script. There is too little dancing and too much pontificating and verbal venting in Yeh Ballet. If you can live with that then this film will leave you teary-eyed at times.