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HomeOpinionPoVCelebrate Naatu Naatu’s Oscar but don’t forget this exclusion

Celebrate Naatu Naatu’s Oscar but don’t forget this exclusion

The exclusion and passing in the Naatu Naatu Oscar performance have been questioned by South Asian dancers living in Los Angeles.

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India had a historic day at the 95th Academy Awards ceremony at Los Angeles. RRR clinched the Oscar for Best Original Song with Naatu Naatu. But the proud moment for Indians across the globe was marred by the complete lack of representation during the high-octane performance of the song at the global stage, on the award night.

Naatu Naatu has stood out for not just the lyrics or the beat, but equally for the absolute banger of a performance from Junior NTR and Ram Charan as Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju take on a dance challenge against a firang (westerner), and winning it. And to have a performance at the Academy Awards stage that engages in passing is tone-deaf, to say the least.

‘Passing’ refers to instances when members of a racial, ethnic, or religious group present themselves as belonging to another such group. In this instance, the two lead dancers, Billy Mustafa and Jason Glover who do not belong to South Asian heritage in any way, were passed off as being Indians, and more specifically, from different communities in South India.

While Billy is a Lebanese-Canadian, Jason Glover is American. They were dressed up as the characters played by NTR and Charan, and took to stage to perform a number that explicitly questions and challenges colonialism and White supremacy in the film. Indeed, the closest link to India for anyone in the list of performers is probably Lauren Gottileb, who dances as Jennifer in RRR. Gottileb has acted and danced in ABCD: Any Body Can Dance(2013).

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Not just Naatu Naatu

It had been a truly iconic day for India at the Oscars. Deepika Padukone welcomed the singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava on the stage for their performance of Naatu Naatu. The song scored over other nominations like Applause from Tell It like a Woman (Diane Warren), Hold My Hand from Top Gun Maverick (Lady Gaga and BloodPop), Lift Me Up from Black Panther Wakanda Forever (Tems, Rihanna, Ryan Coogler and Ludwig Goransson), This Is a Life from Everything Everywhere All at Once (Ryan Lott, David Byrne and Mitski). It is also the first win for a song from an Indian production.

Composer MM Keeravaani and lyricist Chandrabose, singing a version of The Carpenters‘ hit Top Of The World as his acceptance speech would make every Indian get goosebumps.

In the Best Documentary Short category too, Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga’s Netflix Tamil documentary short, The Elephant Whisperers became the first ever Indian production to win at Oscars.

This year has been good for India, and for Asian representation in general. Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian in a lead role to win an Oscar with her exceptional performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once. The film also picked up 11 wins in total, and it is ironic that on a day like this, Naatu Naatu’s performance became the space of exclusion. The last Oscar win for India was nearly a decade ago, when  A R Rahman’s Jai Ho clinched the award in 2014.

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A step back

The exclusion and passing have been questioned by South Asian dancers who live in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and would have been honoured to get a chance to perform.

Divya Jethwani, a music manager and choreographer who works with artists from South Asian diaspora and the sub-continent took to Instagram to pen down a note. She pointed out how a time when artists like Nick Jonas collaborated with King for Maan Meri Jaan, and Tesher quite literally broke the internet with both the song and video of Jalebi Baby with Jason Derulo doing bhangra like a pro, such an oversight is completely unacceptable.

Another Indian-American dancer, Eshani expressed her disappointment on Instagram.

Maybe the organisers for the Academy Award performances should make serious note of Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar acceptance speech this year. “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” said Yeoh. Bread crumbing is no longer the answer to representation. It has to be all-round, loud and proud.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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