The team behind the global sensation “Naatu Naatu,” from the Indian film “RRR,” made history at the Academy Awards on Sunday by taking home the Oscar for best original song. It marked the first song ever from an Indian movie to win an Oscar.
The song was performed on stage at the ceremony — the first Indian song to get that opportunity since “Jai Ho” and “Oh Saya” from 2009 best picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire.”
While the “Naatu Naatu” performance was a big moment in representation for the South Asian community, and especially the South Indian and Telugu communities, there was one major issue: out of the 20 dancers on stage, none appeared to be of South Asian descent.
South Asian creators have been critical of the performance on social media, slamming the Academy for having non-Indian duo Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo, or NappyTabs, choreograph, direct and cast the performance, as well as oversee costume and set design.
The two leads from “RRR” — Telugu actors N.T. Rama Rao Jr., who also goes by Jr. NTR, and Ram Charan — declined to participate in the performance because of other commitments and a limited amount of time to rehearse, Oscars producer Raj Kapoor said in an interview published on the Academy’s website Tuesday. In an interview with The Juggernaut ahead of the Oscars, Jr. NTR said the team didn’t want to take away from the attention the singers should be getting.
In the song that appears in the movie, Jr. NTR and Charan’s characters dance in front of Caucasian British colonists who say that the two are not be sophisticated enough to dance. The characters proceed to put on a spectacular show with a dance native to their culture, impressing the women and angering the men who can’t keep up with their skill.
Both the song and the movie emphasize strong anti-colonial themes.
In the Oscars rendition, the two leads were played by American Jason Glover and Canadian Billy Mustapha, who were made to look like the two main characters of the movie, despite not being South Indian.
While the choreography and production teams made the ensemble cast more diverse by casting people of color in some of the “White” colonist roles, they failed to extend that representation to South Asians in the ensemble and lead roles, argued Shivani Reddy, a Telugu-American film and TV critic and TikTok content creator.
“I liked that they went a more diverse route, because the movie itself became this global phenomenon,” 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.
Reddy, who is a part of the South Asian dance scene in Los Angeles, said that South Asians are rarely represented in the arts, and that this performance would have been the perfect opportunity to give them that representation on Hollywood’s biggest stage.
“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,” she said. “And for the one time that we maybe could have gotten access, we were denied.”
Joya Kazi, a professional dancer, choreographer, consultant and producer in Los Angeles, who is a member of both the Screen Actors Guild and the Television Academy, said her agent submitted her for consideration as a dancer or member of the production team for the Oscars’ “Naatu Naatu” performance. Her agent later told her that NappyTabs had decided not to audition or even consider dancers they had not worked with previously.
Kazi explained to CBS News that that is not an uncommon practice, and that she assumed the duo had decided to go with other South Asian performers for the performance. However, when she saw a now-deleted social media post from a friend and one of the “Naatu Naatu” Oscars dancers, Lauren Gottlieb, who has previously participated in Bollywood productions, she was surprised to see no one appeared to be South Asian on the crew.
Many of the dancers who ended up getting to perform were alums of “So You Think You Can Dance” — the show where NappyTabs gained popularity from being supervising choreographers.
“I felt weird about it, because I just had a feeling that maybe we’re not going to see any South Asians on stage,” Kazi said.
After watching the performance, the artist, who has worked on Hollywood sets like “Never Have I Ever,” felt it was a bittersweet moment. She said she was happy to see her friends performing on a massive stage, but that it was unfair of NappyTabs to skip over South Asian talent, especially in a song that comes directly from South Indian cinema and has lyrics about the merits of the “villagers’ dance.”
“It was just really disheartening,”Kazi said. “I feel as though NappyTabs really needs to just take a moment and acknowledge the fact that there was a misstep, and [that] they should have included someone from the culture.”
Heena Patel, a cultural strategist, consultant and producer in the South Asian performing arts community, told CBS News that Asian representation was at the forefront of the Oscars this year with big wins for films such as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Elephant Whispers.” But, Patel said, the misrepresentation of the Indian community in the “Naatu Naatu” dance casting was hard to ignore.
“It’s just so unfortunate that this piece has now marred what really would have been a flawless execution of an evening with regards to diversity and equity,” Patel said. “If you don’t find people right away, it is on you to try harder, if it is a priority. [NappyTabs] chose the easy route.”
Reddy said another disappointing aspect of the performance was how little screen time the song’s actual singers received while performing at the Academy Awards.
“Of course, the dance is this huge reason why [“Naatu Naatu”] became a phenomenon,” she said. “But like Lady Gaga, and like Rihanna, the camera should have stayed on those singers, because that should have been the focal point of the performance.”
She added that the original choreographer, Prem Rakshith, while involved in the Oscars production according to the Academy, did not receive the recognition he deserved at the awards show for creating the viral steps.
In Kapoor’s interview published on the Oscar’s website, he explained the process of creating the “Naatu Naatu” dance for the Oscars stage, and said the team tried to involve Rakshith and the “RRR” team in India in order to capture the energy of the dance.
But Kazi said the explanation was not enough.
“I feel like it was an attempt to justify how this entire production came together,” she said. “And they completely failed to acknowledge the fact that they left out people of India, in trying to make this feel like it was like a global performance.”
“In a way, it’s this very calm public gaslighting, where they’re just making it seem as though there was no issue,” she added.
Divya Jethwani, a music manager, co-founder of a music label, dancer and choreographer who has worked with Indian Canadian artist Tesher, especially on his hit “Jalebi Baby,” told CBS News that it is important to recognize that the way Indians in India perceived this performance may be different than the way Indians in America perceived it.
“People in India don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this. The reason behind that is because they are just so happy to see the song being performed on an Oscar stage. To them that is representation,” Jethwani said. “But to people here who like literally haven’t seen themselves represented on the big screen … it’s like it is a big deal because we don’t get those opportunities. We don’t get to celebrate our culture on these big screens.”
Reddy said aside from the casting issue, there should have been more context provided about the culture from which the film originated.
“There’s just improvements that could have been made to better represent the culture, and the industry in which the movie came from,” she said. “There was largely no information really about the Telugu film industry, or Tollywood.”
In fact, Kazi, Patel, Jethwani and Reddy all pointed out how Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel referred to “RRR” as a Bollywood production, which is usually a Hindi-language movie, rather than a Tollywood production, a Telugu-language movie.
Jethwani said that in the future, when dealing with a specific culture, it’s up to the industry to select the right people to make decisions like casting.
“You put up a person that has the cultural competency and understands the nuances of the culture in that position of power. And then beyond that, that’ll serve your casting,” Jethwani said. “You need to start at the top. Creatives can’t be helped if there’s nobody to help them in that position.”
Despite the flaws, the performance had some bright spots too, Patel said.
“Great job on having not just an Indian person introduce the song, but a South Indian person, with Deepika Padukone,” she said. “The choreographers, Napoleon and Tabitha, involving Prem Rakshith, who was the original choreographer of the film, in this piece…great job, spot on.”
The Telugu-language song was written by Chandrabose and sung by Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava, and the music was made by M.M. Keeravani. Jr. NTR and Ram Charan, who both primarily work in Telugu cinema, starred in “RRR” and performed the viral dance in the movie.
The “kuthu” style song, with its contagious dance and rhythm and important anti-colonialist themes, managed to beat out stiff competition at the awards show, including Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick.”
CBS News reached out to NappyTabs for comment but did not immediately get a response. We also reached out to the Academy, which referred us to the interview with Kapoor mentioned above.