From the slums of Mumbai to the world's largest dancing reality show. This is how Naigaon's V Unbeatable dance crew made their mark on the global stage.
"Beta, main ye nahi kahunga ke tum mat padho, par mujhe darr hai main tumhari school ki fee time pe nahi bhar sakunga." (Son, I am not telling you to quit studies, but I am afraid I won't be able to pay your school fee on time)
Nearly a decade ago, Shankar Chauhan, who runs a cycle repair shop in Masinagaon (a small village in Uttar Pradesh, India) told Om Prakash, his teenage son that he may not be able to fund his school fee and also manage household expenses.
Om who had just managed to complete class 10 from the nearby government school had two choices ahead of him -- to quit his studies and help his father run the house or pursue his dream for dancing.
He chose the latter.
Ten years later, Om Prakash Chauhan is leading a dance troupe of over 30 students who come from the slums of Mumbai that recently made it to America's Got Talent (external link), an international talent reality show.
The 27 year old who ran away from home to escape poverty is happy that he can finally tell his father to retire from his cycle shop. That he will send money home and provide his parents a better life.
Of the many defining moments in Om’s life, a significant one was when his dancing troupe V Unbeatable received a standing ovation from the audience and judges at America’s Got Talent.
The episode of their audition was telecast on television on May 28, 2019. Click here to watch it (external link)
But a leaked video of their performance (officially shared on AGT's Facebook page) which features 28 dancers aged between 12 and 27 -- all picked up from different slums in Bhayander and Naigon in Mumbai released a week ago -- has gone viral (It has been watched by over 21 million people on Facebook so far).
Om Prakash's story is synonymous to hundreds of slumdog millionaires who challenged their fate and toiled hard to make their future better, brighter.
So, how did he do it?
This is his journey in his own words:
After completing class 10, I ran away from home to come to Mumbai.
I didn't have a degree so it was difficult to find a job.
I didn’t tell anyone I was here until I found a job here in Bhayander. I took up some small jobs till I found work in a shop selling sunglasses.
A few years ago, I came to know about this place where some boys from the street would come and practice b-boying.
Since I loved dancing, I started rehearsing with them, learning the moves. I didn’t have money to join a dancing school, so I would learn from whatever I saw, whoever was willing to teach me.
That’s how I met Vikas. Vikas was his parents’ only child. His family, like most of us had financial crisis so they never approved of his dancing.
But Vikas would always tell his parents: Mujhe ye karne do. Ek din main bada reality show karunga aur aapka naam roshan karunga.
Whatever I learned in dance is because of him.
Vikas and I started our own dance group Unbeatable where we would train the slum kids in our free time.
In 2014, Vikas met with an unfortunate accident and lost his life. It was a big setback for all of us.
Our group disintegrated. We couldn’t rehearse without him.
After his death, his father came to me and apologised.
He said he regretted not understanding his son’s dream. He encouraged me to get back to dancing so I could fulfil his incomplete dream.
I mustered the heart to gather everyone and tell them what Vikas' father told me. Everyone had tears in their eyes and wanted to do something for him.
We named our group V Unbeatable after Vikas.
That day onward, we pledged that we will work harder and leave no stone unturned.
All members in my group come from financially challenging backgrounds.
One of them works as a bus conductor for a school bus and spares his break time between 3 and 4 pm to learn dancing.
Sanjay goes to school and sells flower garlands with his father.
Every evening he makes some excuse and comes to Naigaon to join us. When he told his story to everyone during the Dance Plus Season 4 auditions, his father who was sitting among the audience, was shocked.
‘Papa aap poochte the na, main dance karne jata tha,’ he confessed. (Father, you would often ask me where I went to; I used to practice dancing then.)
His father broke down on the sets.
When Suraj, one of our members was caught sleeping during rehearsals, I yelled at him.
He silently heard me out and then complained how helpless he was.
In Suraj’s case, his parents were very clear that he has to work and contribute to the family.
In the morning, he worked as a paper delivery boy, sold clothes on the streets during the day and came to dance with us during the evening.
‘Aapki galti nahi hai. Kya karu main? Kab sounga' he asked me. (It's not your fault. But what can I do? When do I sleep?)
I felt really bad for yelling at him. He didn’t even have a pair of shoes or chappals.
Each one in our group has a back story. Most parents are not supportive. And they have a valid reason too.
These kids lie to their parents to come for rehearsals otherwise they are not allowed. They can either study or work, but dancing is not even an option.
We have a rule -- that once you join the group, it is mandatory to wear track pants for rehearsals. I know it is not possible for everyone.
I sometimes buy it for the kids but I don’t earn enough to take care of everyone.
These kids would have to spend Rs 10 or Rs 15 to take a rickshaw from Naigaon station (a suburb in western Mumbai) to reach our practice area.
There are nearly 35 kids who come regularly, others come and go as they find the time. But when we have an event, I arrange for a pickup truck that can hold up to 20 people to ply to and from Naigaon station.
When we made it through Dance Plus auditions, it was a huge opportunity for us.
We created a Facebook page and our videos were shared on social media.
There was a lot of support and encouragement from the audience too.
Maybe someone sitting in America saw our videos and decided that we should be allowed to perform.
In May 2019, I received an e-mail from AGT’s team to come for the auditions in California.
I couldn't believe it. I thought someone was playing a prank.
I went over the e-mail again and couldn't believe it.
I was happy but at the same time, I was stressed about a lot of other things.
The mail stated they would only allow 20 people in group. I called up on the number and tried to reason with them that I would need at least 30 people to perform the act I had in mind.
Finally they agreed for 28.
When I told them that we didn’t have the money to book the tickets, they agreed to pay for the visa and tickets on one condition. That if we failed to make it through the auditions I would have to repay the money.
It was a big risk for us. A single return ticket cost approximately Rs 65,000. Along with visa expenses it would account to nearly Rs 20 lakh.
When I shared the news with their families and parents, only a few of them were willing to help. Most of them felt it wasn’t worth the risk.
I somehow convinced them to send the kids for practice.
We had only 10 days to prepare. We rehearsed for 16 hours a day but never gave up.
I sold off my bike, took a loan from a friend and signed up for their passports.
When I went for the visa interview, I put everything at stake.
We all went for the interview, but only I was called inside. They asked me a few questions which I answered well.
The visa was approved within a few days and we finally reached the US.
Everything else that happened after is a haze.
I cannot tell you some things because we are bound by a legal contract.
More than 40,000 people from across the world had applied for the auditions. There were only two Indian teams and we were one of them.
When my father saw the leaked video of the audition, he said he was proud of me.
I know, it took me 10 years to get here. I told him I won’t let all this hard work go in vain.
This journey we are in right now is the dream of hundreds of dancers like Vikas from around the world.
Some have succeeded, most have failed. But I will not give up.
We have seen and endured so much all these years.
Whether we make it through the next few rounds in AGT, only time will tell; but I want to make this work for all those who believed in us.
I want to give a better life to the kids who supported this dream and sacrificed everything.
It is because they gave it their 200 per cent so we could live to tell this story to the world.
Today, we are getting calls from people all over the country. I would like to tell them, 'Thank you for all your love. This is just the beginning! Please support us.'
As told to Divya Nair