Mumbai boy's detour to Royal Ballet School

The inspiring story of Amir Shah, a 15-year-old boy from the Mumbai slums who went off to America to learn ballet and generated huge headlines all over the world, has a twist in the tale.

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 20.09.17
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(From left) Amir Shah, Sooni Taraporevala, Manish Chauhan. Picture by Rohan Raut
Amir Shah

London, Sept. 19: The inspiring story of Amir Shah, a 15-year-old boy from the Mumbai slums who went off to America to learn ballet and generated huge headlines all over the world, has a twist in the tale.

Instead of training in America, as he had intended to do, Amir has ended up in London - at the Royal Ballet School, recognised as one of the world's greatest centres of classical ballet training.

A spokesperson for the school confirmed Amir is in London, "settling down well". He was being allowed to get used slowly to his new surroundings as "he is in a new country".

The spokesperson emphasised that Amir had received a three-year scholarship "because of his talent" and said "the process is very rigorous". Admission to the school "is based purely on talent and potential, regardless of academic ability or personal circumstances".

Some had called the welder's son "India's Billy Elliott" after the 2000 British dance-drama film about a boy becoming a professional ballet dancer, set in north-eastern England during the 1984-85 coal miners' strike.

Amir's Israeli American ballet teacher in Mumbai, Yehuda Ma'or, who was the first to recognise his talents when he was 12, has said: "I don't know how the ballet theory got into this kid's body. And he knew everything. He learned the language very naturally."

"I don't believe in reincarnation, but if I did, he is Rudolf Nureyev," Ma'or enthused, referring to the Soviet era ballet legend, once described as juggling "his weight on his feet the way magicians juggle objects with their hands".

With the help of well wishers, notably Dr. Yusuf Hamied, the chairman of the Indian pharmaceutical giant Cipla who donated $30,000 (Rs 19 lakh) towards his fees, Amir - the youngest of five siblings - did fly to America in December last year initially to train at the Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) in Portland, Oregon.

That did not work out and it was decided to switch him to American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City for a four-year course. But there was a misunderstanding about the fees which were projected to be $80,000 (Rs 51 lakh) - instead of $25,000 (Rs 16 lakh) - in the first year.

"Amir is in London," revealed Hamied. "He arrived here very recently. He has been given a full scholarship by the Royal Ballet School for three years. I said he could keep my $30,000 for his living expenses."

Hamied said he had agreed to make the donation after being approached last year by Sooni Taraporevala, the screenwriter and photographer who is best known for her work on Mississippi Masala, The Namesake and the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay (1988), all directed by Mira Nair.

"I said I know nothing about ballet but she said, 'Just watch a one minute video'," recalled Hamied, who was so impressed he called her back immediately and offered $25,000 for his fees, later increased to $30,000.

Taraporevala, who has made a short film, Yeh Ballet, on Amir and another promising local youth, Manish Chauhan, 21, played down her own role in helping the duo - Manish is in America.

"Their teacher Yehuda Ma'or is the real hero of this story," she said. "He's the one who spotted their talent at a time when they had never heard of ballet. After just two years with him, they were at this amazing level. Really amazing!"

There was a reason why she had chosen to make her short film on ballet. "I had done ballet as a kid and was fascinated by their story. First time I saw them dance I got teary - their amazing natural talent was very obvious. Since then I've helped as best as I can."

She went on: "I have known Dr Hamied because over the years whenever (the conductor) Zubin Mehta has been in Mumbai, I've hung out photographing him. Dr Hamied was always there, too, because Zubin and he are chuddy buddies (school friends). He responded positively within one hour that he would fund Amir's first year. Bless him!"

Her film ends with footage of Amir and Manish flying off from Mumbai but what happened afterwards turned out to be completely unexpected.

Taraporevala disclosed: "In Oregon, he didn't have an ideal living or dance situation so Yehuda (Ma'or) called him back to Mumbai in May 2017. I was nervous about him returning because would he get another visa? Turned out to be a brilliant move. Yehuda filmed and sent ABT (American Ballet Theatre) a video of Amir. They admitted him."

Taraporevala added: "In New York, his yearly expenses were turning out to be much more than initially expected -$80,000 a year with extra academic tuition classes. For many reasons, financial and other otherwise, Amir decided to go to RBS (Royal Ballet School) instead. At RBS, he is fully taken care of financially and in every way for his entire education."