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India has never had a strong independent film culture: Yeh Ballet director Sooni Taraporevala

Writer-director Sooni Taraporevala on adapting a real-life fairytale on screen, her film clock ticking and why India needs to nurture indie cinema.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Updated: February 27, 2020 9:01:43 am
Sooni Taraporevala director interview, yeh ballet movie, salaam bombay movie oscars, indian movies in oscars, oscars 2020, indian express Sooni Taraporevala’s Yeh Ballet is streaming on Netflix. (Express)

The city of Mumbai has witnessed many improbable fairytales come true. Yeh Ballet, Sooni Taraporevala’s second outing as a director, after Little Zizou (2008), is based on one such true story. This new Netflix release is inspired by the story of two young boys from the city’s slums — Manish Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah — who excel in ballet, an aristocrat among western dance forms, and got admission in Oregon Ballet Theatre School in the US. The movie, a fictionalised version, is as much about the city, with its crazy dynamics and energy, as it is about the journey of its protagonists — two gifted male dancers, played by Achintya Bose and Chauhan. In an interview, Taraporevala, 62, talks about the making of Yeh Ballet that captures the essence of Mumbai and the spirit of its youngsters. Excerpts:

There has been a gap of 12 years between your two directorial outings. Has photography kept you busy?

Screenwriting has been my bread and butter since Salaam Bombay! (1988). I do that much more than photography. Nowadays, I am just photographing with my phone. After Little Zizou, I was working on a large project that I’d written. It was futuristic, sci-fi and very expensive. It never got off the ground. Then, I’ve written quite a few scripts as work for hire. Those have also not made it to screen. Hence, there has been a gap.

I made a short VR documentary on Manish and Amiruddin some years ago for Anand Gandhi’s Memesys Lab. At that time, I had talked to the boys about the possibility of doing a feature on their story one day. Producer Siddharth Roy Kapoor, too, had read about them in the newspaper. So, when he asked me if I’d like to make a feature on them, I jumped right at it.

What was your process before you got down to writing its script?

Before I started writing, I spoke to both Amir and Manish. I spoke to their families too.

Since the city is so integral to the protagonists’ journey, how did it influence your story?

Sometimes locations inform the script. I found a platform-like space in a fishing village where women dry fish. The movie shows the character of Asif (Bose) and his friends practising in that space and being chased off all the time. Similarly, the locality where the home of Nishu (Chauhan) is shown, there’s a temple, a cross and a masjid next to each other. So I mentioned in the script that the residents bow down there. All those things are inspired by the locations.

Sooni Taraporevala director interview, yeh ballet movie, salaam bombay movie oscars, indian movies in oscars, oscars 2020, indian express A still from Yeh Ballet. (Express)

Both the movies directed by you deal with young protagonists.

It was coincidental. The feeling of family we had among the cast and crew during Little Zizou was the same during Yeh Ballet. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that our main protagonists were young. So, the vibe was much gentler. Both Achintya and Manish are absolutely fantastic in the film. I could not have asked for anyone better — in terms of acting, dancing or the hard work they put in.

Chauhan is trained in ballet. Did he have to unlearn for the film?

The film’s story starts from the point where he doesn’t know what ballet is. He definitely had to unlearn and I used to keep reminding him that you were not a good ballet dancer at the beginning. So remember what you used to be like earlier. Achintya is trained in jazz and contemporary dance. For the film, he trained intensely for six months in ballet, hip hop and break-dancing.

You said you want to now write what you will direct. What’s the trigger for that?

Age. My film clock is ticking. Earlier, I thought I didn’t have the personality of a director. When I turned 50, I decided I should give it a shot. Platforms like Netflix are a lifesaver for people like me, who’ve always done independent cinema, without big actors involved.

Do you already have a script in mind?

I have a script that my daughter (Iyanah Bativala) and I wrote together. It’s a very contemporary story set in Mumbai. She is studying at Cornell University and is majoring in film. She has a very wicked sense of humour.

You wrote the script of Salaam Bombay!, which was nominated for the Oscars. Why have so few Indian movies made the cut?

India has never had a strong independent film culture. If we do have that, then I believe our chances will be better. Because when you see the Oscar-nominated films, which I do because I’m a member of the Academy, they are just really, really good. And they are being made in countries where independent cinema has flourished for a long time.

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