“Naatu Naatu” at the Oscars: A Cultural Triumph Gone Wrong

South Asians asked why there were no Indian lead dancers on stage. The Academy and the dance troupe responded with excuses.

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Dancers perform 'Naatu Naatu' from "RRR" at the 95th Annual Academy Awards on March 12, 2023 in Los Angeles, California (Rich Polk/Variety via Getty Images)

The 95th Annual Academy Awards night went down in history for the Indian film industry. The country bagged two awards, with The Elephant Whisperers winning Best Documentary Short and the energetic “Naatu Naatu” from RRR (2022) winning Best Original Song. With these wins came many firsts: “Naatu Naatu” was the first song from an Indian production to be nominated in the category, and to win. It was also the first Telugu song, from a Tollywood production. And The Elephant Whisperers, a documentary about an indigenous couple in Tamil Nadu that has dedicated their life to caring for orphaned elephants, was the the first film produced and directed by women, Guneet Monga and Kartiki Gonsalves, respectively, to win in that category. 

The icing on the cake was the grand live rendition of “Naatu Naatu” — introduced by Bollywood superstar and entrepreneur Deepika Padukone, sung by the original Telugu singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava, and performed by a troupe of dancers — that ended in loud cheers and a standing ovation. This is only the second time an Indian tune was performed live on the prestigious stage, 14 years after A.R. Rahman delivered a gripping performance of “Jai Ho” and “O Saaya” from the British production Slumdog Millionaire (2008). He, too, won for Best Original Song (“Jai Ho”) and Best Original Score. The “Naatu Naatu” dance was indeed a moment, but what was supposed to be a milestone for Indian culture worldwide became a missed opportunity for Indian and South Asian dancers and choreographers.

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