Last night, India made global history when the smash-hit song “Naatu Naatu” from the Telugu-language (AKA Tollywood) film RRR (2022) became the first Indian song to win an Oscar for “Best Original Song” at the 95th Annual Academy Awards. But some who celebrated the monumental victory also lamented the apparent absence of South Asian dancers onstage, let alone South Indian performers — as well as the film’s repeated misidentification as a Bollywood production.
These omissions are particularly glaring in the context in which “Naatu Naatu” appears in the film. In RRR, directed by S. S. Rajamouli, the number follows a scene in which an English man hurls racist insults at one of the leads, Komaram Bheem (played by NT Rama Rao Jr), for being one of the only Indian men present at a colonial-era British nobility party. The English man asks Bheem what “these brown buggers” know about art and dance while demonstrating classic Western ballroom styles. Bheem is rescued by the other lead, A Rama Raju (played by Ram Charan), who asks the English man if he knows “Naatu” before the pair jumps straight into a lightning-speed dance routine set to an energetic percussive music number.
The “choreographers” for the Oscars performance were Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo, known together as Nappytabs, from So You Think You Can Dance. While neither Nappytabs nor the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) have responded to Hyperallergic’s request for the full list of last night’s performers, several social media users reported that none of them were of South Asian descent. The dancers who portrayed the lead characters alongside the film’s playback singers Kaala Bhairava and Rahul Sipligunj are confirmed to be Billy Mustapha, a Lebanese-Canadian dancer, and Jason Glover, an American dancer. Both Mustapha and Glover appear to have entered the spotlight through So You Think You Can Dance.
Criticism began pouring in after one of the participating American dancers, Lauren Gottlieb, shared a now-deleted Instagram post of a rehearsal. A TikTok user named Maheetha Bhardhwaj (@dancing_uro_doc) posted a viral video explaining her disappointment with the Academy for their decision, encapsulating a majority of the concerns from the South Asian diaspora.
The song’s choreography and instruments are rooted in the South Indian “Kuthu” and “Teenmaar” styles that originate from the states of Tamil Nadu and Telangana. “Kuthu,” meaning “punch” in Tamil, and “Teenmaar,” meaning “three sounds” in Telugu, are lesser-known informal folk genres that utilize percussion instruments and vigorous dance moves.
Music manager Divya Jethwani (@adaywithdivya) also took to Instagram to express her dismay with the selection of what she described as “Brown-passing” dancers in lieu of those with South Asian heritage for the stage performance.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Jethwani, a co-founder at an emerging label called Namah Music Group that works with South Asian talent internationally, said that the significance of the film scene’s anti-colonial stance “was basically entirely wiped when they had Brown-passing people having their hands up as if they played two Indian revolutionaries.”
“That just killed it for so many people and it just took away what that story actually meant and why ‘RRR’ deserved to be recognized the way that it was recognized,” Jethwani continued.
Jethwani, along with several news outlets, also noted how both “Naatu Naatu” and RRR were repeatedly misidentified as Bollywood productions instead of Tollywood productions. Jimmy Kimmel even slipped and said “Bollywood bombshell” at the end of his Oscars monologue as the “Naatu Naatu” dancers forcibly ushered him off stage. “Bollywood” is a portmanteau of Bombay (now Mumbai), the home base for Hindi-language cinema production, and Hollywood; while “Tollywood” is a similar portmanteau but for Telangana, where a majority of Telugu-language cinema is produced. Bollywood and North Indian entertainment media have eclipsed South Indian productions globally, leaving a bit of leeway for the confusion on top of the similar names.
When asked about this, Jethwani told Hyperallergic that “it basically just boils down to not having a cultural consultant that knows and understands the Indian community and its nuances within cultures, languages, people, and lifestyles.”
“Nobody was in the room to stop this from happening,” Jethwani stated. “I haven’t made any contact with Nappytabs, but I’ve been in communication with the Academy (AMPAS) and there’s conversations about how we can remedy this. I think an apology is probably the only thing that they can do now in hindsight.”