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‘Yeh Ballet’ Review: A Promising Drama on Slow Simmer

Netflix’s latest original film follows the dance journey of two Mumbai boys and the film has a life long after the credits

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Jessica Xalxo Feb 27, 2020

Julian Sands as Saul Aaron and Achintya Bose as Asif in ‘Yeh Ballet.’

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★ ★ ½

It’s hard to do justice to real-life stories. The dialogue can put a damper on the essence of held conversations, the weight of the characters’ psyche and emotions gets pruned to quick cuts, and the timeline of their journeys can come across as a test the makers had to cover all their bases on. Director-writer Sooni Taraporevala’s (Little Zizou) loose adaptation of her 2017 namesake documentary Yeh Ballet (on the lives of two Mumbai boys, Amiruddin Shah and Manish Chauhan, who received full scholarships to the Oregon Ballet Theatre School) manages to tick all those boxes and more, while still emerging as a two-hour feature film that’s worth sitting through, if only to read between the lines

In the Netflix original film, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city known for fostering dreamers are two unlikely boys who find a match with a dance form so alien, one’s first meeting with ballet gives rise to a flippant irreverence while the other’s culminates in instantaneous devotion. Asif (Achintya Bose) is a breakdancer who can’t be bothered with taking a “bakwaas (rubbish)” formal class while Nishit aka Nishu (Chauhan plays a fictionalized version of himself) is a contemporary dancer who misses the cut for the limelight. Both their paths intertwine as renowned Israeli-American ballet teacher Saul Aaron (Julian Sands who plays Shah and Chauhan’s real-life instructor Yehuda Maor) relocates from the States to India and starts teaching at the local Mumbai Dance Academy. 

For the most part, Taraporevala’s Yeh Ballet is a promising drama on a slow simmer. Set to a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ pace, it doesn’t take too long to be acquainted with Asif, Nishu and Aaron’s lives with Mumbai’s Salvage Audio Collective’s mellifluous score (supervised by city-based composer Ankur Tewari) serving as an intuitive companion. A konkani song rings out from a nearby loudspeaker while Nishu bows to every religious idol in the basti, Asif’s everyday fleet footedness hides a graceful levity that sets him on a less gritty path as a ‘man of the house,’ and Aaron’s frustration with conflict rings loud in how smothered he feels by the invisible lines of community. Every scene comes stacked with artful nuance that’s layered in context and commentary, evoking a distinct sense of realism that rings loud in how the characters respond to the events of the film; their realities are breathing narratives that never choke on stereotypes. A lot of this is owed to the lens that Taraporevala employs while filming Yeh Ballet, lending the reins to the characters instead of fetishizing their realities to cash in on the formulaic experience of watching an underdog story. From Asif’s rugged apathy to Nishu’s burning zeal to Saul’s weathered point of view, the lens lands true in every scene.

But in spite of the well-intentioned storytelling, Yeh Ballet soon loses its grip on the viewer as the dance between the plot, action and dialogue tries like hell but ultimately fails to find its groove. The dialogue lacks the depth that could be derived from scenes robbed of their time, emerging triumphant only in a few vital, pivotal instances (such as when Asif tells Nishu and Aaron, “India mein iska bhi lottery nikla aur apna bhi — India is where we all got lucky”) and the film suffers for it. Every sequence is punctuated by the fast-paced plot’s invisible and incessant clock — Asif’s journey to earnestness in ballet goes by in a flash while Nishu’s struggle to find a home quickly culminates into a trying lease on independence — and the character arcs are inextricably soldered into the action, making for stunted transitions as they realize their next steps. The material sometimes feels better suited to a longer format than a film and much of the story’s magic is lost in the compact editing. The intent is unmistakably laden in every scene but is also undeniably lost in the quick cuts of action. 

All these layers, however, invoke a life for the film long after it’s over. Bose and Chauhan’s earnest performances stay with you and the story’s pragmatic idealism stands out. Don’t hit play expecting a traditional inspirational flick that exploits emotion and circumstance. Expect something a lot more real, even if it falls just that inch short of being entertaining. All art cannot entertain, some art needs to just be seen. Yeh Ballet is such art.

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