The Live Naatu Naatu Made Some People Angry

Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover dancing to Naatu Naatu at the Oscars (Image credit: AFP)

Naatu Naatu literally rocking the stage at the Oscars has made some people – quite a few actually – very angry. Turns out, the live performance of the RRR track that eventually won Best Original Song at the awards were performed by a cast of dancers of whom none were of Indian descent. The two men who danced the principal parts performed in the film by actors Ram Charan and Jr NTR have been identified by international sites as Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover who are Canadian and American respectively. Many have called this out publicly, arguing that casting non-South Asian dancers undermines the anti-colonial essence of the song – in the film, set in pre-independence India, the Naatu Naatu sequence is a dance battle in which Raju and Bheem, played by Ram Charan and Jr NTR, outdance their British opponents.

The electrifying performance of Naatu Naatu at the Oscars was introduced by Deepika Padukone and sung live by Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava, the voices behind the now globally viral track. The authenticity ended there – none of the dancers seem to have actually been South Asian but were passed off as such. American dancer Lauren Gottlieb, a familiar face from several Indian films, was added to the cast of performers. Indian audiences have largely embraced the performance, admittedly rousing and a highlight of the Oscars ceremony, but the South Asian community in USA have protested against the lack of representation.  

US-based dancer Joya Nandy Kazi wrote in an Instagram post: “The Oscars Naatu Naatu performance was supposed to have been a huge celebration of pride for all of us and yet we were left feeling empty handed and snubbed. A song about colonialism and lyrics saying no dance is good as a villager’s dance was performed by two brown passing men. They were amazing, but why weren’t two professional dancers of our own community cast as the leads alongside a predominantly South Asian cast? The colonists are the butt of the joke of this song and wanting to recreate the movie scene even with the group of men who should be the locals as anything but South Asian has got me teetering between being flabbergasted and laughing at the irony. We have got to do better.”

See her post here:

Ms Kazi told CBS News that her agent had submitted her for consideration for the Naatu Naatu Oscar performance as either a dancer or as part of the production team. She was not auditioned because the team in charge of the live performance wanted to use dancers they had worked with previously. She assumed that other South Asian performers had been cast instead and was surprised to see that none had been, Joya Nandy Kazi told CBS News. Telugu-American film critic Shivani Reddy told CBS News, “It just felt very exclusionary that the one race they didn’t include was the one that was supposed to be represented because of the film and where it’s from…It’s unfortunate because there are so many South Asian dancers that I know that are in the industry trying to get into those spaces that just don’t get afforded those opportunities. And for the one time that we maybe could have gotten access, we were denied.”

The creative team of Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo, professionally known as NappyTabs, directed, produced and choreographed the live performance of Naatu Naatu at the Oscars The posts they have shared on Instagram about their experience have been overwhelmed with comments calling them out for failing to cast South Asian dancers. “Do better. Represent the correct cultures. Shameful,” reads a comment on such post. “Challenge: hire South Asians as dancers to a South Asian song (impossible version),” reads another.

In an interview, Oscars producer Raj Kapoor revealed that the original plan had been for Ram Charan and Jr NTR to dance to Naatu Naatu, supervised by RRR choreographer Prem Rakshith. “In late February, we were informed that Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao Jr would be attending the Oscars, but they did not feel comfortable performing the live number on stage. The change was brought on because of their other professional commitments and the limited amount of time to rehearse,” Mr Kapoor revealed.

“Global audiences fell in love with Naatu Naatu and were dancing in theaters around the world, so we wanted to be open to any ethnicity to help honor the global impact of this song, and to celebrate that universal, unifying power of music and dancing. At the same time, we wanted to be authentic to the film and to honor Indian culture, which is why the film’s producers, choreographers, leads and singers were approached from the very beginning and involved in our decision making. Knowing that the two leads were unable to be involved, we worked in collaboration with Prem, our team in India, and our team in the US to find two lead characters who captured the infectious energy of the characters in the film and their over-the-top energetic dance skills,” Mr Kapoor said.

Naatu Naatu, from SS Rajamouli’s massively successful RRR, beat competition from Lady Gaga’s Hold My Hand and Rihanna’s Lift Me Up, among others, to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.

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