The makers of Call Me Dancer are going from coast to coast to unveil the documentary about the struggles and triumphs of astonishing talent Manish Chauhan. The film directed by Leslie Shampaine and Pip Gilmour held its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Thursday and last night it opened the Dance on Camera Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center.
Call Me Dancer documents a young man who can perform backflips, kip ups, the Thomas Flair (a scissoring floor move named for gymnast Kurt Thomas) or any number of incredible feats as if they required no effort at all. But his greatest accomplishment has been to rise from humble origins in Mumbai, India to growing acclaim on a world stage, a journey as difficult and improbable as pulling off any of his athletic or ballet maneuvers.
“In India, people think there is no future in dancing,” Manish (pronounced Mah-NEESH) laments at the beginning of the film. He is the son and grandson of taxi drivers and striving for anything beyond such a mundane existence requires an uncommon degree of persistence and self-belief. It also requires overcoming the skepticism of his parents, who have made significant sacrifices to send Manish and his sister Madhu to college, and hope to see them both land regular paying jobs.
Fortunately, Manish has a couple of people firmly in his corner – his grandmother, who provides moral support, and ballet master Yehuda Maor, an Israeli former dancer who trains young aspirants at Mumbai’s DanceWorx Performing Arts Academy. Entering that school becomes the pivotal moment in Manish’s life. In the studio he encounters a world of people with very different skills from what he has honed on the streets of Mumbai – a classical tradition necessitating altogether different training and musculature than performing what could be described as stunts.
“I don’t want to be an acrobat,” Manish insists. “I want to be a dancer. Call me dancer.”
We are swept up in his enthusiasm for fulfilling his dream. It’s the classic underdog story – Manish has entered the ballet scene very late by the standards of most hopefuls. Is he destined to get a contract with a dance company or to return home in crushing disappointment?
At this point in the narrative, another young dancer enters the frame – the remarkably gifted Amir who at age 14 is seven years younger than Manish and seemingly on a fast track to a career as a principal dancer. The clever Yehuda sees the potential to build a certain rivalry between the dancers who recognize each other’s talent, driving them to reach their highest levels. But when Yehuda shows a colleague at the Royal Ballet School in London a video of Amir in studio, the youth is immediately offered a spot in the school. The filmmakers note they were unable to follow Amir’s path any further because the school prohibited filming of their budding prodigy.
Seeing Manish and Amir in studio dancing side by side, it’s apparent the boy possesses an ineffable grace and line that Manish cannot hope to acquire at such a late stage of development. He’s crushed when Yehuda tells him he won’t make it in a classical ballet company. “You started too late.”
But Yehuda has the solution – Manish must study contemporary dance, where his range of abilities can be put to proper use. And he knows just where to send him to train – the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Ga’aton, Israel.
Pressures mount on Manish – his parents press him to contribute money to support the family and to help pay for his sister’s wedding. When Manish is offered a role in a fictional film based on the triangular relationship between him, Amir and Yehuda, he must choose between the prospect of income and disappointing the Kibbutz company, which doesn’t want him to do it.
Manish chooses the role in Yet Ballet (Julian Sands, the actor who recently went missing while hiking on California’s Mt. Baldy, plays the character based on Yehuda). A severe shoulder injury either caused or exacerbated by the film shoot sidelines Manish for a year. Then the Covid pandemic interrupts the dreams and aspirations of performance artists everywhere.
Still, Manish won’t surrender. “I can’t give up,” he says. “I love dancing and I will keep dancing.”
Call Me Dancer reaches the heart through the archetypal quest of the film’s hero, and the charm of Manish Chauhan. Adding resonance to the cinematic experience is the endearing relationship between Yehuda and his prize pupils. He is introduced as an intimidating figure who cajoles his students and even smacks some of them in the head when he’s dissatisfied. But his selflessness in supporting Manish turns him from a grizzly to a teddy bear. And it’s touching to see his emotion when he acknowledges that his role, like a parent’s, is to prepare Manish and others for success far beyond the Danceworx walls.
The film’s biggest drawing point, naturally, is the dancing of Manish, who performs acts of stunning strength and agility with the joy of someone born to dance. He’s also beautiful, which Yehuda notes is one of his assets. Before an important solo performance, Manish chooses from among prospective outfits to wear on stage; it’s not surprising to hear a colleague advise him to go shirtless. The traditional purpose of dance, particularly in the classical sphere, has been to celebrate aesthetic beauty, and that’s something Manish possesses in many forms.
The film team includes executive producer Jay Sean, the renowned British singer-songwriter who is of Indian descent, along with fellow EPs John Patrick King, Esther van Messel, and Jitin Hingorani. Producers are Priya Ramasubban, Cynthia Kane, and Leslie Shampaine. Shampaine directs with Pip Gilmour.
The lustrous imagery is by cinematographers Neil Barrett and Abhijit “Hojo” Datta, who understand how to capture dancers on film, as well as the colorful, congested streets of Mumbai. Jennifer Beman White is the editor, with Hemal Trivedi as consulting editor. Nainita Desai composes the score.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.