Oscars face flak for excluding South Asians in ‘Naatu Naatu’ performance, show producer responds

Artists and commentators have pointed up the exclusion of Indian and South Asian dancers in the live rendition of ‘Naatu Naatu’ at the 95th Oscars ceremony

Updated - March 16, 2023 05:49 pm IST

Published - March 16, 2023 05:20 pm IST

 Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover perform ‘Naatu Naatu’ at the 95th Oscars

 Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover perform ‘Naatu Naatu’ at the 95th Oscars | Photo Credit: AP

‘Naatu Naatu’s historic reception at the 95th Academy Awards has now been marked by a controversy.

The anthemic song from SS Rajamouli’s global blockbuster RRR is the first from an Indian production to win Best Original Song at the Oscars.

However, before and after the Oscars telecast on March 12, many raised objections to the exclusion of South Asian origin dancers and choreographers in the live rendition of ‘Naatu Naatu’ at the Oscars ceremony.

Composed by MM Keeravani and penned by Chandrabose, ‘Naatu Naatu’ is a thumping dance number performed by Ram Charan and Jr. NTR in RRR.

The Telugu-language song has been noted for its energetic beats and strong anti-colonialist lyrics.

‘Naatu Naatu’, which also won the Golden Globe for best original song earlier this year, was conducted live at the 95th Academy Awards ceremony by Keeravani and sung by its original singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava. The track was presented onstage by Indian star Deepika Padukone, who called it a ‘total banger’. However, the dance performance that accompanied the piece was choreographed by US-based duo Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, together known as Nappytabs.

Also Read |M.M. Keeravani on ‘Naatu Naatu’ Oscars win: It’s just the beginning of everything

Furthermore, the 20 dancers who performed the number, including leads Jason Glover and Billy Mustapha, did not appear to come from Indian or South Asian descent, many noted. (Jason Glover is American while Mustapha is a Lebanese-Canadian.)

This has led to allegations of exclusion and racing passing against the Oscars.

In an Instagram post, Joya Kazi, an Indian-American dancer and choreographer, wrote that the Naatu Naatu performance left her ‘feeling empty & snubbed’.

“A song about colonialism & lyrics saying that no dance is as good as the villager’s dance was performed by two brown passing men,” Kazi wrote, wondering why professional dancers from the Indian community could not be cast as leads alongside a predominantly South Asian cast.

“The colonists are the butt of the joke of this song & 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 & laughing at the irony. We have to do better,” Kazi wrote.

Also Read | True colours: On the significance of India’s Oscar wins 

Lilly Singh, a Canadian YouTuber of Indian descent, who also hosted the Oscar pre-show event, shared pictures with Ram Charan, Chandrabose and others while wishing for more South Asian represention at the Oscars.

“Hopefully next year, we can see even more South Asian representation on that stage as presenters, nominees, winners and dancers (that Naatu Naatu performance was EPIC but I wish some bomb af South Asian dancers got the chance to be part of it),” Singh wrote.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Academy published an interview by Oscar producer Raj Kapoor on its website.

Kapoor claimed that, while preparing the ‘Naatu Naatu’ performance, they did seek participation from original choreographer Prem Rakshith and stars Ram Charan and Jr. NTR.

However, in late February, Kapoor and his team were informed that the actors ‘did not feel comfortable performing the live number on stage’.

Kapoor further stated that while the original RRR sequence features background dancers that are mainly Caucasian, they wanted their cast of 20 supporting dancers to ‘diverse and from all different backgrounds’ (Earlier, a representative of the Academy told IndieWire that was it “incorrect” that there were few, if none, South Asian artists in the performance).

Along with ‘Naatu Naatu’, Kartiki Gonsalves’ The Elephant Whisperer also won from India for Best Documentary Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards. The moment was hailed as the biggest for Indian representation at the Oscars.

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