Sometimes my brain can predict perfectly when an inspiring, feel-good film will be exactly the ticket. Possibly because, lately, there’s never been a time when I haven’t needed a bit of a lift. Either way, I’d like to take the time to say good call, brain.
I’m not sure why, but films about ballet have a special power to inspire me and break my damn heart. As a child, I quit ballet even faster than I quit soccer, so there are no fond memories there. But I can’t help admire the quiet strength and beautiful grace of ballet dancers, especially when it means shaking up the status quo in all of the best ways as it does in this week’s film.
Two young men in modern day Mumbai pursue a love of ballet despite discouragement from their loved ones, an emotionally volatile teacher, and significant financial obstacles.
In a Mumbai slum, teen breakdancer Asif dreams of a life where his family isn’t barely scraping by. Rebellious and always seeking out a party, Asif shakes his unruly hair all around during Holi. The problem? His strict religious uncle is keen to remind Asif that they are Muslim, and participating in a Hindu festival is highly inappropriate.
Lacking the funds–and the freedom–to pursue his love for dance, the closest Asif can get to making a career of his passion is through watching a reality show competition on TV.
One of the competitors on the show is another aspiring dancer, Nishu. Though eliminated from the competition, Nishu manages to snag the audience favorite award, the Hat of Destiny. When he learns of a prestigious dance school run by a famous American, Nishu is eager to attend. However, Nishu’s parents disapprove of this non-traditional career path and worry he won’t be able to provide for his ailing sister in the future.
Through lies and omissions, both Asif and Nishu end up as students in the dance school. The boys dislike each other instantly, and fare no better with the instructor Saul, who turns out to be a total diva. In his rebellious, impulsive style, Asif manages to earn the teacher’s attention after literally tripping him up in the hallway. Asif certainly has style, but does he have the discipline to follow through in learning a new art form: ballet?
Meanwhile, Nishu takes the hardworking nerd approach, asking a classmate to catch him up on all of the ballet moves others have already learned. Nishu grows more and more skilled, but Saul doesn’t have the time or interest in anyone but Asif.
For his part, Asif faces setbacks as his friends tease him relentlessly about his new hobby. Tragedy strikes when a friend dies suddenly in a gang-related incident, for which Asif blames himself. Faced with this wake-up call, Asif vows to commit himself fully to ballet, dedicating the time and focus needed to truly learn and hone the art.
Nishu’s problems also escalate after his father discovers where his college fund has really been going. When his parents kick him out of the house, Nishu agrees to be the school’s unpaid custodian in exchange for a stay in a creepy windowless basement (which includes utilities, aka a bucket of water collected from the building’s A/C unit).
Further complications arise when Asif falls for a Hindu girl whose family disapproves of his Muslim faith. Meanwhile, Nishu’s sister’s condition worsens and she ends up in the hospital.
Things start to look up when Saul insists Asif move in to train 24/7 for US ballet school auditions, with Nishu as a chaperone. The arrangement could be beneficial to both boys…if they’d stop fighting long enough to recognize it. However, even if the two dancers do manage to gain acceptance to a program, can they afford to go? And will the States even let them into the country to pursue their dreams?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: damn, Holi looks so fun. Maybe not right now. But in other, non-pandemic times.
The rest of the film is just as fun, full of energy, hope, and some killer dance moves. While the concept of the movie sounds a bit like Slumdog Millionaire meets Billy Elliott, it has managed to carve out a space with its originality and heart, plus challenging of traditional gender norms. Our story looks into the lives of characters in extreme poverty, but it never takes a condescending or overly romanticized approach to their challenges. And approximately the last half made me cry my fucking eyes out.
There’s added interest here in the social and religious commentary of the film–first, the religious clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India, as well as the use of religion to police others’ decisions. The States’ immigration policies get an examination from this film, as well as the idea that bringing in a white man adds authority to any endeavor in former colonies. Saul never really gets that his abysmal behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in any other context, but he’s experiencing some serious white privilege in India.
While I’ve neglected Asif’s love interest, who is a fairly minor character, she brings an energy to the film that I just love. A tough breakdancer in her own right, Asha is stubborn without being an infuriating rom-com stereotype. Would absolutely watch a spin-off (no pun intended) about her.
Honestly, though, it’s the journey Asif and Nishu experience that makes this film compelling: both individually and as reluctant friends. I wish they had been friends a bit earlier on in the film as it’s so sweet when they do finally stick up for each other. On the bright side, to me this means one thing only: Yeh Ballet 2: 2 Fast, Tutu Furious MUST be in the works.