Indian Billy Elliott to study at Royal Ballet

Manish Chauhan
Manish Chauhan



Amir Shah, Sooni Taraporevala and Manish Chauhan

THE inspiring story of a 15-year-old boy from the Mumbai slums who went to America to learn ballet made international news – but there has been a twist in the tale.

Some described Amir Shah, the son of a welder, as “India’s Billy Elliott”, after the 2000 Brit­ish 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 Shah’s talents when he was 12, 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 pharma giant, Cipla, who donated $30,000 (£22,000) towards his fees, Amir, the youngest of five siblings, did fly to America in December last year initially to train at the Oregon Ballet Theat­er (OBT) in Portland, Oregon.

However, that did not work out and it was decided to switch him to American Ballet Theat­er’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onas­sis School in New York City for a four-year course.

But a misunderstanding about the fees, which were pro­jected to be $80,000 – instead of $25,000 – in the first year – scuppered that plan too.

“Amir is in London,” revealed Dr Hamied. “He arrived here recently. He has been given a

The Royal Ballet School in south London

full scholarship by the Royal Ballet School for three years. I said he could keep my $30,000 for his living expenses.”

Dr Hamied said he made the donation after he was ap­proached last year by Sooni Taraporevala, the screenwriter and photographer who is best known for her work on Missis­sippi Masala, The Namesake and 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 Dr Hamied, who was so im­pressed he called her back im­mediately and offered $25,000 for his fees, later increased to $30,000.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Ballet School confirmed Amir was “settling down well” in London and being allowed to get used to his new surround­ings slowly.

She added that Amir had re­ceived a three-year scholarship “because of his talent – the pro­cess is very rigorous”.

The Royal Ballet School is recognised as one of the world’s greatest centres of clas­sical ballet training. Admission to the school “is based purely on talent and potential, regard­less of academic ability or per­sonal circumstances”.

Taraporevala, who has made a short film, Yeh Ballet, on Amir and another promising young man, Manish Chauhan, 21, played down her own role in helping the duo; Manish is in the US.

“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 did ballet as a kid and was fascinated by their story. The 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.

donor Dr Yusuf Hamied

“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!”

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

Taraporevala said: “In Oregon he didn’t have an ideal living or dance situation so Yehuda 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 Theater) a video of Amir. They admitted him.

“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.”