OSCAR’S CATCHIEST CONTENDER
A TikTok dance favorite, infectious ‘Naatu Naatu’ from Indian film ‘RRR’ vies for the best song award
Do you know … “Naatu”? The Oscars sure do. Director S.S. Rajamouli’s Indian action epic “RRR” (in theaters now and streaming on Netflix) has turned into an awards season favorite, thanks in part to its infectious musical number “Naatu Naatu.” Though the Telugu-language film missed out on a best picture nomination for the 95th Academy Awards (airing live Sunday on ABC), the tune is up for original song — the first ever in the category from an Indian film — and a favorite against heavyweights like Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
The three-hour film, which boasts elements of action-adventure, romance, soap opera, musical and historical fiction, took off in America last summer when celebrity admirers like Patton Oswalt and James Gunn helped build word-of-mouth buzz on social media, and young fans took to TikTok to do their favorite dances from the movie.
And while “RRR” wasn’t chosen as India’s official entry into Oscars’ international film category, the South Asian blockbuster quickly became a Cinderella story of awards season as “Naatu Naatu” won best song at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards (where the movie also won best foreign language film).
Set in the 1920s, “RRR” follows Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), a warrior who disguises himself as the Muslim Akhtar as he searches for a kidnapped girl from his tribe, and Raju (Ram Charan), a police officer ordered to search for Bheem. After they save a boy in death-defying fashion, Akhtar and Raju become fast friends, Akhtar meets English love interest Jenny and our two protagonists are invited to a posh soiree.
When a bullying Brit makes fun of Bheem, Raju stands up for his buddy and the two Indian heroes bust into a joyous duet with impressive synchronized footwork (and suspender-pulling!) that turns into a competitive dance-off.
The song features a South Indian folk beat in a 6/8 time signature, popular in Indian cinema. It “instantly connects to the listener,” says composer M.M. Keeravani, adding that lyricist Chandrabose hatched the distinctive “naatu naatu naatu” tempo pattern. One of the key instruments is the tape (or duff ), a folk drum made from wood and parchment that “gives you a very bright, pungent and open sound.”
The song’s lyrics also reflect a theme of friendship. “Any two people can dance to this song,” Keeravani says. “It gives you a feel of camaraderie and togetherness.”
Keeravani realized “Naatu Naatu” had the potential to “bag international attention and acclaim” when he saw TikToks of American schoolchildren doing the number’s signature hook step. At a sold-out Los Angeles screening in January, Charan witnessed the phenomenon up close, with dozens dancing along as the movie played. They’re used to seeing that kind of reaction “happening in the theaters on our side,” the actor says.
The moves weren’t the hardest part of the “Naatu Naatu” scene. Individually, Charan and Rao “have done more difficult steps in our films for a decade,” Charan says. But for “RRR,” most important was “unlearning everything we have learned” and “having the same style and the same timing. [Rajamouli] wanted us to come together to look like two individuals with the same soul.”
The appeal of “RRR” isn’t just great music — there are rampaging wild animals, huge action sequences and expansive digital storytelling. In short, “it is such a hoot,” says Lalitha Gopalan, a radio, television and film professor and South Asia Institute faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, who has written three books on Indian cinema. The boundary-breaking movie is “India’s first Neo-Baroque work,” she adds. “This thing feels like a whole different aesthetic.”
“RRR” is also an example of the reach of the Indian film industries based on different languages including Hindi (aka Bollywood), Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada.. Gopalan hopes “RRR” starts a trend where “Americans get curious about Indian cinema, which is not monolithic.”
Rajamouli has talked in interviews about a possible sequel. For now, though, Team “RRR” is readying for Oscar night, when the song will be performed by Indian singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava. Details are sketchy so far, but they can’t skip the dancing, right?
Charan confesses that “my knees still wobble” when he talks about “Naatu Naatu” but isn’t saying no to potentially showing the academy crowd his hook step up close if needed.
“If there is a request for that, why not?” Charan says. “We have entertained them once on screen, and we are more than happy to entertain them on the Oscar stage.”