Oscars 2023 : To be or Naatu be? Hollywood is out to woo India, a market of 1.5 bn people

RRR‘s Jai ho moment at the 95th Academy Awards was in a way preordained. After all, what’s not to like about Naatu Naatu? It is peppy, frothy and performed with unbridled verve. Even if it quite obviously isn’t the best that its composer M M Keeravani has produced in a long and varied career, the foot-tapping number and the Telugu blockbuster in which it appears could not have been sprung on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) at a more opportune time.

Hollywood is out to woo India, a market of 1.5 billion people who love nothing more than filmed fluff. Naatu Naatu represents the collective craze for popcorn entertainment in a vast nation that can never tire of Bollywood-style song and dance. RRR is, of course, not strictly a film to the extent that the term encompasses Mumbai mainstream cinema. In spirit, it is. Every inch of the way.

Naatu Naatu rides on a pair of anti-colonial crusaders encouraging us to break into song and dance. The Academy has swallowed the bait pretty much like a wide swathe of Indian and western moviegoers has.

For well over a decade now, Hollywood studios have been trying to make inroads into India. To that end, many of them set up subsidiaries and forged partnerships in this country. But the American share of the Indian pie has increased only in driblets. The Indian movie industry has held its ground, thanks primarily to its indigenous filmmaking ethos and formula. That is a reality that Hollywood has recognised.

The Naatu Naatu win at the is historic indeed because RRR is the first-ever Indian feature film to win an Academy Award in any category. It is another matter that the S S Rajamouli-directed movie did not exactly make the kind of waves that some Western critics expected it to. It was tipped to be among the Best Picture nominees. It has to settle for much less.

Coming to think of it, the Indian documentary short that has won an Oscar should be a far greater source of joy for all of us. The Elephant Whisperers, a Netflix film directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga, is a history-making triumph for two Indian women working outside the big-budget space from which Rajamouli and RRR have emerged. The Elephant Whisperers is a breakthrough on par with the one that Naatu Naatu is supposed to have achieved.

So, what was it about Naatu Naatu that helped it put numbers crooned by Lady Gaga (Hold My Hand from Top Gun – Maverick) and Rihanna (Lift Me Up from Black Panther – Wakanda Forever), among others, in the shade? For one, the song was picturised on the grounds of the Mariinsky Palace, the official residence of the President of Ukraine. Yes, it was filmed in Ukraine of all places and that part of the world has been on the global radar for many, many months now.

On a serious note, the Ukraine connection is only a coincidence. Naatu Naatu has struck a chord with viewers across the world because of the to-hell-with-the-world vibe of the choreography and the infectious energy that the two onscreen performers – NTR Jr and Ram Charan – bring to the song-and-dance set piece.

But no matter how brilliant the two actors are, they definitely aren’t the first – nor will they be the last – Indian ‘dancers’ to blow movie audiences away. Dance numbers are an Indian commercial cinema staple. It is only now that Hollywood seems to have woken up to the kinetic power of manic hip-wiggling.

Some of the credit for the Naatu Naatu Oscar should accrue to A R Rahman’s Jai Ho from Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. That was a British movie made with Indian talent. Jai Ho had its cheerleaders back in its day, but most of us were aware that it was anything but the Chennai-based composer’s best work.

If Jai Ho won an Oscar, the recognition had much to do with the global excitement generated by Slumdog Millionaire, which arrived in our midst in the wake of the 2007-2008 global economic crisis and celebrated the resilience of the poorest of the poor in India’s financial capital. The world sat up.

A decade and a half on, it is the same story with Naatu Naatu. M M Keeravani, who (as Maragathamani) has composed songs for Tamil films and (as M M Kreem) for Mumbai movies, isn’t a slave to an Oscar statuette. His body of work is exceptional.

But to be noticed by the Academy, the veteran music director had to wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to happen and the world to be driven to the brink of what felt like an impending apocalypse. RRR – Rise Roar Revolt – threw a lifeline, or so it seemed – to a world that was down in the dumps. Keeravani and his Naatu Naatu just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Why would the world have said no to Naatu Naatu?

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