Yeh Ballet movie review: Gully Boy walked so that Netflix India’s new film could dance
Director - Sooni Taraporevala
Cast - Julian Sands, Manish Chauhan, Achintya Bose, Jim Sarbh, Danish Husain, Vijay Maurya
In one sweeping shot, director Sooni Taraporevala opens her new film, Yeh Ballet, by gliding from the magnificent Mannat to the muddy shores of Koliwada. We see a bunch of slum kids dancing, surrounded by drying fish and dwarfed by the high-rises of Worli.
In New Delhi, it is possible for the rich to remain isolated and it is possible to isolate the poor. In Mumbai, neither can the aspirations of the unfortunate be suppressed nor the shame of the wealthy be shielded.
Watch the Yeh Ballet trailer here:
Based on an incredible true story, Netflix India’s Yeh Ballet never misses an opportunity to remind the viewer of these disparities. And that is the conflict at its centre. The two young protagonists of the film live in slums, and can never escape from under the shadow of the rising Mumbai skyline; a constant reminder of their position. In this regard, Yeh Ballet reminded me of Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, which used similar visual techniques to highlight the class divide in our country.
But unlike that film (with which it shares dialogue writer Vijay Maurya), the two heroes of Yeh Ballet find an outlet not in an art-form that has forever been associated with social injustice, but, most ironically, one that has largely been limited to the privileged. For kids like Asif and Nishu to be gifted ballet dancers is like Murad from Gully Boy discovering that his talents lie not in spitting a rhyme, but in fine French cooking.
And so, Asif and Nishu find themselves under the tutelage of a temperamental teacher, a man who was rejected both by the country he was born in, Israel, and the one he chose as his home, the USA. Played by Julian Sands, Saul Aaron isn’t as repulsive as Vincent Cassel’s character in Black Swan, but neither is he as amiable as Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid. It’s all a bit vague.
And that’s true of the film as a whole, too. Like a sanitised Slumdog Millionaire, Taraporevala’s second film as director has a lot on its mind. Saul, a Jew, understands the nature of religious bigotry, and the young boys know that dancing the ballet might be considered effeminate. However, it never really makes any points beyond the obvious -- that social constructs such as religion, class and gender are meaningless.
These are noble ideas, but simply having a point-of-view isn’t enough; one needs to know how to express it. To the white man’s perspective of Saul, Asif and Nishu are just like every other student that attends his class. They just happen to be more talented. It’s the Indian characters, like Jim Sarbh’s artistic director — another in the long line of smarmy men that the wonderful Sarbh plays with suspicious skill — who’re keenly aware of the intricacies of Indian class divisions. I wish the film had the courage of its convictions, and didn’t simply swat away every obstacle that comes between the boys and their dreams. Most of their setbacks appear to have happened off screen, before the events of the movie.
There are scenes in which Taraporevala dips her toes into matters of religion — Asif is beaten up for dancing with a Hindu girl at a Diwali party — but on the other hand, there’s Nishu, making his daily rounds at the temple, the church and the mosque in his slum; all cramped together, more because of space constraints than any grand humanistic ideas that the city planner might have had.
Unlike Black Swan, in which director Darren Aronofsky employed state-of-the-art visual effects techniques to replace dancer Sarah Hay’s face with star Natalie Portman’s, thereby affording himself the chance to film in long, unbroken takes, the dance sequences in Yeh Ballet are edited to within an inch of their lives. Instead of immersing the viewer in these scenes, which should ideally have been the show-stopping moments of the film, the rapid-fire editing distances viewers from the characters.
Like Taraporevala’s visual metaphors, Yeh Ballet is far too simplistic to be a satisfying examination of modern India and its problems; it glides by on the strength of its warm tone. It is, essentially, what Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha would have been had he chosen to discard its boring central character and focused on that artistic autowallah instead.