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The ballet boys of Mumbai

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-06-2017 Sankhayan Ghosh

We first see Manish Chauhan, 21, and Amiruddin Shah, 15, the protagonists of a new film Yeh Ballet, in a half-empty Mumbai local train, pirouetting with the support of overhead handles. The boys, from lower-middle-class homes in Ulwe and Sanpada in Navi Mumbai, respectively, have got full scholarships to study dance for a year at The School of Oregon Ballet Theatre in the US and they can’t contain their excitement. If you turn around—and you can because this film is in virtual-reality format—you see the director, Sooni Taraporevala, in black clothes and shades. Over six months in 2016, Taraporevala documented the everyday lives of Chauhan and Shah, before they boarded the flight to the US.

The 14-minute film is produced by Memesys Culture Lab, a film and new media studio led by film-maker Anand Gandhi. It has been made available for viewing from 7 June on ElseVR, Memesys’ online magazine specializing in VR documentaries and videos. The film will have its world premiere at the ongoing Sheffield Doc/Fest.

In an interview, Taraporevala, a photographer and Padma Shri awardee who has worked as the screenwriter for films such as Salaam Bombay and The Namesake, spoke about the making of her first VR film. Edited excerpts:

How did you come to make ‘Yeh Ballet’?

My son Jahan was doing a VR film for Memesys. They approached me to direct a film in VR. They had a list of subjects and I chose this one. I had done ballet as a kid in Bombay (now Mumbai), so I had personal interest in the subject. That’s how I met the boys Amiruddin Shah and Manish Chauhan. They had only been learning ballet for two-and-a-half years and they came from a place where they didn’t even know what ballet was. They had never heard Western classical music. But they have an innate talent. They are prodigies. I was fascinated by their story.

Taraporevala (centre) with the film’s protagonists, Amiruddin Shah (left) and Manish Chauhan.

The story is also about movement—whether it is dancing or leaving one place for another. Did that make it more suited for VR, which allows the viewer to move?

Absolutely. The film is a mixture of three parts. One is the talking-heads interviews with the boys, and their Israeli-American ballet teacher Yehuda Maor talking about how he discovered them. Second, where the boys move through the city of Mumbai, and the third part is about them dancing. Visually, the last two were much more interesting. I wanted to make the viewer feel that they are on the streets, turn around and see who is coming behind, or be in the middle of the dance hall and have them (the boys) perform around the VR rig.

Shooting in VR involves multiple cameras. What was it like filming in smaller spaces or in situations when you wanted to take a fly-on-the-wall approach?

My cinematographer for the film, Rohan Raut, is a technical wizard. In VR, you can’t hide behind the camera. But he came up with methods for many scenes where we aren’t in the frame. When Amir meets his family in their small apartment, for instance, we left the VR rig in the middle of the room and told them to talk among themselves. We saw the footage later. In another scene, when Manish goes to meet his father, who is a taxi driver, at the taxi stand, we did the same and let them be.

Was the editing process different from any other feature film?

Yes. In a regular film you have rectangular frames which you cut in a very straight line. In VR, the frames are almost circular. We had to figure out the rhythm of the medium and cut accordingly. I had a wonderful editor, Abhinav Tyagi, who brought great ideas to it.

What was it like directing in VR?

I often wished I had a normal camera instead of a VR rig, which allows you to shoot with one hand tied behind your back. Here, there is difficulty in moving the camera because the action can’t get closer than 3-4ft around the subject. But the beauty of VR is when you put that headset on, it is worth it. I would love to do it again.

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