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Yeh Ballet
By Sooni Taraporevala

10 min read

Yeh ballet kya cheez hai? What is this thing called ballet Amir asks in the beginning of the film. Manish who had saved and gifted himself modern dance classes around the same time, also had no clue. A mere 2 ½ years later both of them went from very humble backgrounds to the Oregon Ballet Theatre school in USA on a full scholarship. It was my privilege to document the tail end of their amazing journey.

My route to them was a circuitous one. My son Jahan, a student at Brown University, home for the summer, in the car on the way home from the airport, was excited about his new interest – wanting to make a VR film. I had just read an article about Anand Gandhi’s VR lab. I put Jahan in touch with Anand who was very welcoming. Jahan started working on his film at the lab and they approached me to make a VR film for them.

Always of the belief that you can teach an old dog new tricks, I was eager to learn something new. Of all the subjects they presented to me the one I was instantly drawn to was about two boys from very low income families who had been discovered by an Israeli American ballet teacher Yehuda Maor and were so good they had been offered a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet but couldn’t go because the American consulate had turned them down for a visa. The reason I chose this was for personal reasons. I had learnt ballet myself as a child in South Bombay.

Manish, 21, with his high cheekbones, like a young Baryshnikov, Amir, only 15 but with the bearing of a seasoned ballet dancer.

The first time I met them was in a coffee shop in Bandra. Manish, 21, with his high cheekbones, like a young Baryshnikov, Amir, only 15 but with the bearing of a seasoned ballet dancer. Manish was more talkative, Amir, shy and silent.  We crossed the road, the boys helping Yehuda negotiate the crazy traffic. We entered the church compound, walked past the open church where a service was being held, to a room off to one side.

Then I saw them dance and they took my breath away. I found myself getting teary. It’s beautiful and rare to see such natural talent. I couldn’t believe that they had been learning ballet for only 2 1/2 years. In all my years of ballet class, with all our privileges, our ballet shoes without holes in them, not having to travel hours by train to class, in spite of our advantages, there’s not one dancer I can recall from my childhood who came anywhere near Amir and Manish.

We started filming them. Manish’s father is a taxi driver, Amir is the youngest of 8 siblings and lives with 10 members of his happy family in 2 small rooms in Sanpada, Navi Mumbai.

Manish and his father. Photo by Sooni Taraporevala, 2016

The parts I enjoyed filming most was them dancing in class. We placed the VR rig in the middle of the dance floor and had them dance around it.

The parts I enjoyed filming most was them dancing in class. We placed the VR rig in the middle of the dance floor and had them dance around it. Even simple warm ups – when they did them, you couldn’t take your eyes off them. They were seemingly effortless in their perfection of line, form and grace.

This time when they applied for a visa we were there with our VR rig. Amir went in and came out with a neutral decision – he was missing a paper – they hadn’t rejected him but he was asked to come back when he had the fee receipt. Manish went in at 11. We waited and waited, he was one of the last to come out but when he did he was whooping and dancing. Poor Amir was still on tenterhooks.

Amir, who the previous day had defiantly not cut his long hair, returned the next day with his hair chopped short. I was there minus cameras. He told the visa official that she looked like Misty Copeland.  He also came out jumping and did a backflip on the pavement.

So now they had their visas but as Yehuda said, there was a new worry. Finding $10,000 for their tickets, and the boys personal expenses & clothes for the year.

So now they had their visas but as Yehuda said, there was a new worry. Finding $10,000 for their tickets, and the boys personal expenses & clothes for the year. I approached friends, Yehuda approached his students. A mother of one of his students donated their air tickets, a friend generously sent a large amount. But there was still a significant shortfall. I approached Tata Trusts. Though there was a time limit – they had to start school in a few weeks., Tata Trusts generously stepped up to the plate and in no time they had the funds they needed in their bank accounts.

Amir, Yehuda and Manish. Photo by Sooni Taraporevala, 2016

I was at Amir’s house the night they departed – we were to travel together to the airport. The two small rooms were crowded with the 10 members of his family he lives with as well as friends and neighbours, all come to wish him. I took many stills of Amir amongst them – their wild child who nobody imagined would make good – and that too in such a spectacular fashion!

Amir with his family, Photo by Sooni Taraporevala, 2016

When we said farewell at the airport I felt like I was saying goodbye to my own kids. Anxious for them, yet excited too. Like with my kids, I bugged them to keep in touch and was delighted to receive photos on whatsapp charting their progress through airports and ending up with snow.

Amir and Manish depart for Oregon. Photo by Sooni Taraporevala, 2016

24 December 2016

Cut to:

6 June 2017

Yeh Ballet is set to release at the Sheffield Doc Fest in a few days and in India tomorrow.

Much has changed in the intervening months. While Manish is still thriving at Oregon Ballet Theatre Yehuda called Amir back to India. The living situation for him was problematic as well as his class schedule. He only had classes in the evenings leaving him with a lot of free time on his hands. Yehuda felt it would be better for him to be intensively training with him whilst they applied to other schools where Amir’s talent would be better channeled.
They hit the jackpot. The #1 Ballet school in North America, #4 in the world – the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Onassis School (ABT JKO) accepted Amir based on Yehuda’s homemade video made in the Andheri studio.

There’s even more of a happy ending. Philanthropist Yusuf Hamied, best known for defying large western pharmaceutical companies in order to provide generic AIDS drugs to the world, made a quick decision about Amir.

There’s even more of a happy ending. Philanthropist Yusuf Hamied, best known for defying large western pharmaceutical companies in order to provide generic AIDS drugs to the world, made a quick decision about Amir. One hour after he was sent an email about Amir he responded. He would fund Amir’s entire expenses in NYC for the year. It is not a small sum.

Amir is probably the only Indian from India that has ever gone to (ABT JKO). Shot last December, our trailer ends with Amir saying his dream is to be a principal dancer at ABT. Yehuda raises her eyebrows and says half teasingly – oh ABT?

Six months later that’s where he’s headed. I fully expect to see him on stage at the MET in the future – dancing with Daniel Simkin his hero.

Cut to:

6 June 2018

Check this space….

Watch the VR essay, Submerged, directed by Nishtha Jain

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Author
Anahita Mukherji
Anahita Mukherji’s work on inequality earned her the Sanskriti Award for Journalism and Sanctuary Asia’s Wind Under The Wings award for her series on the ecological and human cost of coal lying along Mumbai’s sea-front. She is a former Assistant Editor at
The Times of India.
Director
Nishtha Jain
Nishtha Jain is a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, best known for her widely acclaimed and multi-award-winning films like Gulabi Gang (2012), Lakshmi and Me (2008) and City of Photos (2004).
References
Film Credits
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A VR Essay by
Nishtha Jain

Produced by
Khushboo Ranka

Executive Producer
Anand Gandhi

Creative Director
Zain Memon

Associate Producer
Shone Satheesh Babu

Editor For ElseVR
Shubhangi Swarup

Cinematography
Rohan Raut

Editor
Abhinav Tyagi

Graphic Design
Soumik Lahiri

Post Production Supervisor
Sujit Choudhary

Compositing Artist
Omprakash Choudhary
Gautam Kamat

Team MEMESYS
Naomi Shah
Neil Pagedar
Nidhi Shetty
Nirav Pandya
Niraj Bulbule
Pooja Shetty
Pourush Turel
Rajendra Samanta
Sudeep Chakravarty
Vinay Shukla

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1 - Manish Jha and Pushpendra have extensively researched migration from the flood-prone regions of Bihar over 2015 and 2016 and their work will shortly be published. Their study found the prevalence of labour contractors facilitating the flow of migrants from Bihar to Delhi. These contractors are earlier migrants from the same region who help newer migrants get a job in the city. While helping newer migrants find work, these contractors also exploit them for cheap labour.

2 - Manish Jha and Pushpendra’s earlier work on development in Bihar includes the book Traversing Bihar: The Politics of Development and Social Justice.

3 - ActionAid, December 2016, Climate Change Knows No Borders: An analysis of climate induced migration, protection gaps and need for solidarity in South Asia.

4 - Internal Displacement Monitoring Committee, 2016, Global Report on Internal Displacement