As the sparsely populated Mumbai local train speeds up, two teenagers instantly launch into movement, swaying from one metallic rod to another.
“The first time we met our ballet teacher, he told us to stretch our legs and dance. We didn’t understand a word of what he was saying,” say Amiruddin Shah and Manish Chauhan, undulating amidst goggle-eyed commuters – a point of view enhanced by the 360-degree virtual reality perspective with which they have been shot.
Sooni Taraporevala’s rivetting documentary Yeh Ballet chronicles the lives of the young ballet dancers, who hail from working class families in Mumbai and are among the first in India to get scholarships to study at ballet school in the United States of America. The documentary has been produced by filmmaker Anand Gandhi’s Memesys Culture Lab, and will be screened at the London Indian Film Festival (June 22-29). The 14-minute film captures the challenges faced by the duo up until they leave for the Oregon Ballet Theatre School in the US.
“I was fascinated that two boys who had never heard western classical music or seen classical ballet, after a mere 2 and a half years of instruction were so good that they had got a scholarship to the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in NYC,” said Taraporevala, the writer of several acclaimed films, including Salaam Bombay! and The Namesake, and the director of Little Zizou (2008).
Fifteen-year-old Shah is the youngest of eight siblings and the son of a welder from Sanpada in Navi Mumbai, while 21-year-old Chauhan is a taxi driver’s son. They learnt ballet from Yehuda Maor. In the film, the American teacher declares that Chauhan is a ‘Broadway meets Ballet’ performer, while Shah is the more ‘traditional’ one.
“I had learnt ballet myself for many years in Bombay as a child,” Taraporevala said. “I know the dance form and how difficult it is even though it looks so effortless and easy.”
Yeh Ballet brings us even closer to the young dancers through the virtual reality format – a first for Taraporevala. “It was a learning curve for me,” she said. “The VR rig is a pole with a round of GO Pro cameras attached to it. I had been told one essential fact that if anybody got within a few feet of the cameras they would be distorted. With a regular camera, film or video that is never a problem.”
Yeh Ballet got its world premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest, and has been released on streaming platforms. “In Yeh Ballet you are not only following the journey of the two boys but you also have to hear what they say and read subtitles,” Taraporevala explained. “Because of this potential for it being all too much I wanted to make the edit as easy as possible on the viewer. I didn’t want them having to swing around for 14 minutes trying to follow the story.”
With the rig placed in the middle of the studio, the boys were made to dance around it without coming too close, enabling the viewers to virtually trace their moves. “We had no idea what went on in the scenes until we saw the footage later,” Taraporevala said.
The film showed the pair struggling to fill out their visa forms. Six months after production, Manish Chauhan is still pursuing ballet at the Oregon Ballet Theatre. Amiruddin Shah has returned to India and is looking to join the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Onassis School after being sponsored by Cipla patriarch Yusuf Hamied.
From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich
A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.
For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.
Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.
The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.
While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.
Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.
If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.
Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).
If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.
There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.
The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.
Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.
This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.