NTR Junior and Ram Charan in suspenders, matching steps in a crackerjack duet of a dance, caught the world’s attention like never before. Many wondered why and many others, why not, even as ‘Naatu naatu’ became a catchphrase.
While M. Keeravani and Chandrabose deserve their Oscar win for best song, there is something to be said about one of the most cleverly choreographed dance sequences seen on the big screen in recent times.
What would one call this ‘Feet of Fury’ that is neither flamenco nor salsa — dance forms offered as examples of taste and refinement by the British dandy in the scene?
Choreographed by Prem Rakshit, this is the dance of the masses, reminiscent of the Teen Maar, the ubiquitous drum dance often seen in the streets of Telengana, and also in movies from the South. A 6/8 beat, it is meant to impel the listener into a frenzy of spontaneous unrestricted movement all the while invoking the ‘village drummer’, the ‘local goddess’, the ‘green chilli’, the ‘bull’ — symbols of Indian rusticity. The ‘Naatu naatu’ thus carries the punch and pizazz of the Telugu heartland.
What ‘Naatu’ means
What follows is a repartee, amid a flourish of drums, in unapologetic vigour as if to say: ‘can you match this? ‘Naatu’ incidentally also means to plant a tree. The song therefore is about land, about nativity, and about owning that nativity with pride.
Dances in India have always been grounded, characterised by the wide stance of the feet, knees bent and pliant. The contact of the feet with the ground is a humble reminder of one’s intimate relationship with the earth. The percussive nature of movement seems to typify most ancient, forest cultures. We yield to the earth, while the white world seems to yearn to escape the pull of gravity.
Scope for choreography
No doubt, in terms of scope and canvas, the choreography of this dance number has whiffs of a Hollywood musical. Luminaries of cinema like Busby Berkeley ushered in an era of unlimited possibilities between camera and choreography back in the 1930’s. Dancers in hundreds in meticulous formations were captured from various angles: ‘By a waterfall’ in Footlight Parade, and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ from Gold Diggers are just two examples of these luxuriant visual treats.
In time, Indian movies created their own cinematic brand of music and dance that in the initial years drew heavily on classical movements and gestures. V. Shantaram’s Navrang and Jhanak jhanak payal baaje and numerous movies in the South from the black and white era come to mind. Today, dance numbers on the Indian screen are a standard fare.
Back to ‘Naatu naatu’. What makes this a dance caper that deserved an Oscar for choreography?
For one thing the choreography co-opted the format of a musical and made it completely ‘naatu’ i.e. homegrown.
As with most musicals, the narrative moves forward in the dance. It is not a sudden dream sequence of a romantic duet in the snow-clad mountains nor is it an item number packed with glitz but lacking in purpose. Dance itself becomes a medium to good humoredly snub an exploitative culture that prides itself in its assumed superiority. They twang their suspenders, cock their heads, roll their heels and yes, thrust their pelvis occasionally to keep beat.
Dance-off numbers have been used in the past to demonstrate triumph of the noble and triumph of the subaltern. Elaborate dance sequences like the Prologue and Dance at the Gym from the classic West Side Story remarkably depict the tussle for street dominion between the recently arrived Puerto Rican émigré and the entitled white Caucasians of New York in the mid-1950s using dance as an expression for asserting one’s power.
Come to think of it, the very first dance-off took place on this very land. Shiva and Parvati competed with each other in a battle of moves to prove each one’s supremacy. In other words, we are not new to the idea of ‘show me your move’ living as we do in the land of Gods that dance. The energetic leg-kick challenge in the climax of the dance scene just globalised south Indian folksiness; it may not be long before people ask each other in parties: Do you do the naatu?