Call Me Dancer follows Manish Chauhan from his breakdancing gigs in India to his professional dance career.“ decoding=“async“ fetchpriority=“high“ srcset=“https://forward.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Call-Me-Dancer-Still.jpg 1168w, https://forward.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Call-Me-Dancer-Still-300×203.jpg 300w, https://forward.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Call-Me-Dancer-Still-1024×693.jpg 1024w, https://forward.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Call-Me-Dancer-Still-768×519.jpg 768w“ sizes=“(max-width: 1168px) 100vw, 1168px“/>
Call Me Dancer follows Manish Chauhan from his breakdancing gigs in India to his professional dance career.
Call Me Dancer is a charming character-driven documentary about family, culture, and the improbable friendship between a 21-year-old Mumbai street dancer, Manish Chauhan, and a 70-year-old Israeli ballet master, Yehuda Maor. The latter is a curmudgeonly, demanding individual who, largely because of his advanced age, was unable to find a teaching gig anywhere other than India. But at its core the film is a touching backstage underdog story of resilience and perseverance that pays off, trumping all barriers.
Co-directors Pip Gilmour and Leslie Shampaine follow Manish (pronounced Mah-NEESH) for five years, from his breakdancing gigs in India to his professional dance career in Israel, New York and the Kennedy Center.
“In India people think dancing is not a career,” Manish tells the camera. No matter. His ambitions, commitment and passion are palpable. Despite the prominent role dance plays in India’s cultural scene — sidewalk buskers, wildly popular reality dance shows, and the whole Bollywood aesthetic — Manish’s parents are at odds with his career choice. Making a living as a dancer, as in any of the arts, is precarious and has no status for the Chauhan family who will ultimately rely on Manish for financial support. Chauhan and his own father spent their lives as taxi drivers and he is determined that his son will not follow in their footsteps.
But Manish’s joy in dancing cannot be quashed, especially after he appears on a televised dance competition (admittedly, he comes in 35th place). He is referred to Mumbai’s DanceWorx Performing Arts Academy, where he encounters Yehuda, the ballet master.
Among the upper-crust students who attend the school, Manish feels out of his depth. Plus, he has no formal training. He is an athletic, acrobatic breakdancer whose specialty is leaps, body bends and back flips, a far cry from classical dance. “I don’t want to be an acrobat,” Manish insists. “I want to be a dancer. Call me dancer.”
Despite all that, Yehuda sees untapped talent — or what he calls “a good instrument” — and helps him land a scholarship to attend the school. He also goes to bat for him with his parents, who momentarily relent.
The family is not devoid of compassion, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they capture those moments, which are all the more touching, given the family’s aspirations for Manish. In one snippet we see his mom sewing her son’s hand-me-down ballet shoes that are tattered and in desperate need of repair. Even the grandmother who has clichéd notions about male dancers (shades of Billy Elliot) insists that he should follow his heart and that she will talk to his father on his behalf.
But the most layered, and somewhat ambiguous, character here is Yehuda. He is intensely private and we learn little about his professional or personal life, past or present, though he is currently family-free. “Why do I need a family?” he asks rhetorically. “I can walk. In India family is everything. No one goes to the toilet by himself.”
He recounts losing his grandparents, great-aunts and uncles to the Holocaust. He grew up on a kibbutz where dancing was part of the daily rituals. At an early age he was introduced to Swan Lake and “fell in love with something I couldn’t explain.”
As for his post-kibbutz career, he enjoyed a fine reputation throughout the Middle East and later with the American Ballet Theater, among other companies. But when he returned to Israel and had a falling out, for reasons that are not entirely clear, with one of the more powerful artistic directors he was no longer employable in his native country.
India welcomed him, though the feelings were not fully reciprocated. Initially, Yehuda hated the oppressive heat, the poverty, the congestion and, most of all, the heavily trafficked streets which he was terrified to cross. Still, he is profoundly grateful to India for the opportunities the country afforded him, opportunities offered no place else.
By all accounts he is one rugged teacher, shouting, smacking students on the head, reducing them to tears, playing favorites and deliberately setting up competitions between his most gifted students, specifically 14-year-old Amir, who started training at an early age, and Manish, a hard worker whose accomplishments are achieved through willpower, repetition and drudgery. He’s in the studio night after night, relentlessly honing and torturing every dance muscle.
Amir is born to be a principal dancer, says Yehuda, whose statements sometimes straddle the border between honesty and abuse, while Manish’s chances in the ballet world are virtually non-existent.
Still, Manish treasures his friendship with Yehuda, feeling nurtured and protected in a way he never has before. For the first time in his life he has someone in his corner. He fondly recalls Yehuda taking Amir and himself out to coffee at a local Starbucks whenever either of his two star students mastered particularly complex steps.
Amir is immediately brought on board by the Royal Ballet of London. Several years later Yehuda reaches out to the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company on behalf of Manish, who is promptly accepted. Though he is thrilled, he feels once again like an outsider. The modern dance vocabulary is alien to him, though within short order he finds that he’s very much at home — his own street dance roots are far more aligned with modern dance than ballet. Manish becomes a recognized talent in his new company, but that admiration does not pay the bills. Yehuda, with whom he video-calls frequently, assures him there is light at the end of the tunnel.
And as in an improbable bit of fiction, Manish is offered the chance to play himself in a feature film, Yeh Balletinspired by the relationship among Manish, Amir, and Yehuda.
Not unexpectedly, his movie appearance and the prospect of future film stardom make his parents proud of his career for the first time. Nonetheless, Manish will not surrender his stage dreams. Yehuda finds him a patron — a well-appointed upper-crust Indian woman who underwrites Manish for a year in New York where he ultimately joins Peridance Contemporary Dance Company, his first salaried job.
In the wake of a seriously damaged shoulder and the pandemic years when everything grinds to a halt, the turning point comes when Manish is commissioned to perform a solo at the Kennedy Center. Using Indian music and performing a narrative of growth and transition, his moves tell the story of his own journey. Seated in the audience Yehuda beams.
Cinematographers Neil Barrett and Abhijit “Hojo” Datta understand the nuances of dance, capturing both the small and sweeping gestures, the footwork, the turns. And they are equally adept at bringing to life a place — from the gritty streets of Mumbai to contemporary communal life in a dance kibbutz to New York dancers rehearsing outdoors because they can no longer afford to rent studio space.
My only quibble is that we never really get to know anything about Manish on a personal level. But then again maybe we know all we need to. Emerging from a rigidly traditional culture, his desire to dance, his mythical quest if you will, and his interdependent relationship with his mentor, says it all.