“Call Me Dancer” Q & A

male dancer jumps in the air with pink fabric blowing behind him.

The award-winning documentary Call Me Dancer follows Manish Chauhan, a young street dancer from Mumbai, and his efforts to become a professional. Under the tutelage of Israeli-American ballet teacher Yehuda Maor, Manish’s journey takes him around the globe, from India, to Israel, to New York City.

Sunday, February 25, 5:00 pm at Temple, The Besters present Movie Night & Dinner, featuring a screening of the film, followed by a Q&A with Manish and the film’s co-director, Leslie Shampaine. I spoke with Shampaine via Zoom at her home here in Washington, D.C. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you discover Manish and make this film?

I was a professional ballet dancer, and I knew the teacher, Yehuda. I used to live in Israel when I was a teenager, so I saw him dance at Bat-Dor, but he didn’t know me. But fast forward, I was a professional ballet dancer, and he was teaching in New York City. And I started taking his classes and we became very close friends. I knew that he had gone to India, and I knew he had discovered some talented students there. And we talked about it, and he then said, “You know, why don’t you make this film? Why don’t you make this, tell the story?” And he came to me because he thought that as a dancer, I would be able to give empathy and understanding, sensitivity to his world.

And what do you think that brought to the film?

The first thing it brought is what all filmmakers need — access. He would never have given anybody access to this story the way he gave me.

I understand intimately the life of a dancer and the passion that any artist feels, which pushes them to do what they do, even though they know that there’s no monetary gain, and it’s a short career, and all of those things. But I could connect to Manish, I could connect to Yehuda. Even though we all come from different backgrounds, I could connect to them because I have had the same feelings and passion about dance.

In many ways, this is a familiar story of the kid who wants to do the thing his parents don’t want him to do. How is this different?

You don’t have to be interested in dance to enjoy the film because there are a lot of universal themes within the story. Ageism, for instance. Yehuda is told at 70 that he’s too old to teach, and he doesn’t have any other opportunities. So he goes to India. Manish is also told, you’re too old to start dance and you’re too old to become a dancer. And both of them proved everyone wrong.

All parents want the best for their kids. And I think that Manish’s parents are everybody’s parents; some people have said his mother is everybody’s mother. It makes parents nervous if their kid says, “I want to do something you’ve never heard of before.” They’re uncomfortable about it. They don’t know if he’s going to be successful.

And it’s a true underdog story. Manish comes up against a lot of obstacles and he perseveres. And that persevering is universal.

One of the obstacles that Manish has to overcome is the caste system in India. Can you speak to that a little bit?

His parents took out loans to pay for school, they wanted a good education for their son, but they didn’t have extra money to pay for dance classes. He even said he never had a gym class or played soccer because his parents didn’t have the money for the uniform.

I didn’t look at caste at all, but I saw it more from a family who don’t have the resources. And dance can be seen as elitist because it costs a lot of money to train.

In the film, Manish gets a young rival. Are these two now seen as pioneers in changing attitudes about ballet and dance in general in India?

Yes, they have, because there’s been media attention on both of them. Obviously, I made a film, and there was a fiction film based on him. So there’s this huge responsibility that Manish feels because other kids and the next generation says, okay, if they can do it, then I want to do it.

While I was filming, I met a few students who had seen Manish on the air and came on their own at like 16 to Mumbai to study because they just thought, wow, this is a fantastic dance form.

India has so much culture. So it’s an interweave, it’s a new thread, but it will become Indian, and choreographers will start choreographing and they’ll bring their own culture to it, which is what contemporary dance does.

What message are you trying to send with this film?

I did not have any intention but to show this world where Manish comes from. But people who see the film feel very inspired and hopeful that there are people without any means who can, just with perseverance and talent, find their way, even if everybody puts all these obstacles in front of them, which is everybody’s story.

I think everybody feels more connected to the underdog because I think we are all underdogs and trying to do things in our own lives.

Anything else you want to add that I haven’t asked?

When I lived in Israel, from age 12 to 15, that’s when I started falling in love with the arts. My eyes opened up, and my heart opened up, and I said, I want to be in this world. So I felt very connected to Yehuda, that maybe because he’s Israeli, he’s the direct line to my experience when I was younger and why I do what I do.

I wanted people to see why artists do what they do. It’s hard to describe, but I’m hoping through the film you can see and feel what Manish does for love and for passion.