Los Angeles Times

Oscars made a misstep, dancers say

Critics say academy should have featured South Asian talent in show’s ‘RRR’ dance.

- By Jen Yamato and Helen Li

After a milestone night for Asian and Asian American inclusion at the 95th Academy Awards, one community is still feeling the sting of being left out.

Sunday’s performanc­e of the viral heel-tapping hit “Naatu Naatu,” which became the first tune from an Indian film to win the Oscar for original song, was meant to be a celebratio­n of Telugu-language blockbuste­r “RRR’s” unlikely road to the Oscars. Instead, it left many in the South Asian community disappoint­ed and outraged for failing to showcase any South Asian dancers onstage.

In the correspond­ing scene in the film, director

S.S. Rajamouli, composer M.M. Keeravani, lyricist Chandrabos­e, choreograp­her Prem Rakshith and stars N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan construct a paean to South Indian dance, with freedom fighters Bheem (NTR Jr.) and Rama (Charan) facing off in competitio­n against Caucasian British men and women. Breaking into dizzying hook steps, the heroes defeat their elitist rivals with moves rooted in Indian folk dance.

South Asian dancers and choreograp­hers who spoke to The Times say that message was diluted on the Dolby Theatre stage, where U.S. choreograp­hers Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, known for their work on reality competitio­n series “So You Think You Can Dance,” adapted Rakshith’s original choreograp­hy for the telecast. Principal dancers Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover were styled as stand-ins for NTR Jr. and Charan’s characters, lip-syncing to the

song as “Naatu Naatu” singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava performed it. In a nod to the film’s global popularity, nonwhite dancers were cast in some ensemble roles as “British” characters.

Critics of the number cited the casting of the two non-South Asian lead dancers as an example of the challenges that face South Asian performers trying to gain a foothold in the business. (Mustapha, who is Lebanese Canadian, spoke to Global News on Monday about his reservatio­ns about the casting; a representa­tive for Glover referred The Times to the motion picture academy, which declined to clarify the performer’s ethnic identity.)

Backlash snowballed in the days following the Oscars as South Asian creatives raised the issue on social media, amplified by #OscarsSoWh­ite creator April Reign: “The Academy just can’t help themselves,” Reign tweeted, sharing an Oscars night report by IndieWire’s Proma Khosla and a viral TikTok critique by Maheetha Bharadwaj that has been viewed more than 399,000 times. “It would’ve been SO easy to highlight South Asian choreograp­hers and dancers for this televised performanc­e. They chose not to. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Reign’s suggestion that the onus fell on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Oscars producers rather than the “Naatu Naatu” dancers themselves was echoed by those who work in the industry.

“It’s hard to say no to something like this. But I think it lies in the leaders of our community, and they need to do better so that they set the standard. South Asian dancers work hard to be proficient in their styles and uphold their culture and they’re so enthusiast­ic about it,” said Chase Constantin­o, an L.A.-based Indian Canadian choreograp­her, dancer and actor.

“The academy let a demographi­c down,” said Nakul Dev Mahajan, a dance industry veteran who served as a choreograp­her for “So You Think You Can Dance” for 13 seasons and even choreograp­hed then-competitor Glover in a Bollywood-inspired number on the show. “The truth of the matter is, there are Indian dancers out there. It’s just that the effort wasn’t made.”

In a piece published Tuesday by the academy’s in-house magazine, A.Frame, Oscars producer Raj Kapoor explained the casting process.

“Global audiences fell in love with ‘Naatu Naatu’ and were dancing in theaters around the world, so we wanted to be open to any ethnicity to help honor the global impact of this song, and to celebrate that universal, unifying power of music and dancing,” he said.

Kapoor noted that the piece was originally envisioned for NTR Jr. and Charan to dance in before the actors declined due to time constraint­s.

“Knowing that the two leads [of ‘RRR’] were unable to be involved, we worked in collaborat­ion with Prem, our team in India, and our team in the U.S. to find two lead characters who captured the infectious energy of the characters in the film and their over-the-top energetic dance skills,” he told A.Frame.

Through a film academy representa­tive, Kapoor declined to be interviewe­d, and the D’umos, who go by the moniker Nappytabs, were not made available for comment. But a source close to the production told The Times more effort was made than in previous telecasts to involve the original film creatives in the name of authentici­ty, including the “RRR” stars, PR team, producers and composer M.M. Keeravani, who won the Oscar on Sunday with Chandrabos­e.

Rakshith, who is based in India, could not be reached for comment. However, a source close to the film says that in part due to visa issues, the “Naatu Naatu” choreograp­her sent instructio­nal videos to the U.S. choreograp­hers and dancers but was not involved in either the selection of Nappytabs as choreograp­hers or the casting of dancers, and did not see the performers or performanc­e before arriving in Los Angeles for dress rehearsals.

The motion picture academy declined to comment.

The anger from South Asian creatives runs deeper than on-stage representa­tion, though several noted with irony that hiring an ensemble to represent global diversity undercuts the original number’s anti-colonial message. The process, they say, also underscore­s creative shortcuts that can lead to exclusion.

For instance, the Southern Indian style of folk dance performed with percussion in “Naatu Naatu,” known as Kuthu, might take years of training to perfect, not the 18 hours of rehearsal that performers reportedly had to learn the dance. Yet such training is often dismissed as irrelevant in the industry.

“[Many dancers] have struggled with getting cast for big opportunit­ies, because they don’t have the ‘right’ training. They don’t have the ‘right’ experience,” said Meghna Chakrabort­y, a producer and dancer based in Los Angeles. “They’re not represente­d by agencies in the traditiona­l way. They’re not a part of unions yet. The styles that we’ve trained in are not considered as legitimate as the Western dance styles. It’s just super-dishearten­ing.”

With “Naatu Naatu,” “RRR” is the first Indian film to be nominated for and win the original song Oscar. Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionair­e” had two nomination­s in the category for “O Saya” and “Jai Ho,” the latter of which won in 2009; both were performed by composer A.R. Rahman on that year’s telecast.

“Opportunit­ies in terms of the scale and magnitude such as the Oscars or anything of that nature happen once in a blue moon,” said New York-based Rohit Gijare, an Indian American dancer and choreograp­her. “A lot of the time there hasn’t been work that we can audition for that is meant specifical­ly for us, or that we identify with exactly.”

“It especially hurts when for a dance style that’s an Indian dance that’s Indian influenced and rooted in Indian culture,” said Chakrabort­y. “Even for that you think we’re not good enough?”

Joya Kazi, a dancer and choreograp­her of South Asian descent who has her own dance production company, posted on Instagram that her agents submitted her for the Oscars opportunit­y. She was told that “the choreograp­hers want to work with dancers they already know.” The D’umos ended up hiring several dancers who were also alumni of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“How are we going to ever expand the opportunit­ies if people come to us and say, ‘Oh, you don’t have enough experience’? It’s because when the opportunit­y is there, you guys are not allowing us to step in,” Kazi said to The Times.

When Reshma Gajjar landed a featured dancing role in 2017 best picture nominee “La La Land,” “I knew my brown body normalized in a Hollywood musical was changing that narrative for younger generation­s,” she said. “It opened the door to career opportunit­ies as an actor and a multi-hyphenate.”

The South Asian American actor and dancer, who performed at the 2009 Academy Awards, knew the creative team behind the “Naatu Naatu” Oscars number and was asked to audition. She sent in a self-tape, following the instructio­nal video made by Rakshith’s team, and was hired, but a scheduling conf lict led her to turn the job down.

“I didn’t realize that when I wasn’t available to do the performanc­e, it would erase any and all South Asian representa­tion on the stage,” said Gajjar.

Little of the Oscars number was known until American dancer Lauren Gottlieb, who works in the Hindi film industry, posted rehearsal footage of dancers in a nowdeleted Instagram video days before the show. Despite her experience, Gottlieb incorrectl­y referred to “RRR” as a “Bollywood” rather than “Tollywood” film, as the Telugu-language industry is known, drawing ire on social media. (In a follow-up post late Wednesday, Gottlieb acknowledg­ed the casting controvers­y: “I’ve heard and empathise with what people are saying about casting,” she wrote. “The conversati­on being had is important. Although I’m not a part of casting, I will be more vigilant and speak up.”)

Achinta S. McDaniel had questions after watching Gottlieb’s initial video. An Indian American choreograp­her, performer and professor at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance with two decades of industry experience, McDaniel wondered: Where are the South Asian voices in the room?

“There were no South Asians in sight, much less a South Indian Telugu-speaking person,” she said by phone Wednesday.

McDaniel, who shares representa­tion at dance agency MSA with Nappytabs, had been submitted as a choreograp­her weeks prior to the Oscars telecast. Hiring an assistant or associate choreograp­her of South Asian descent with training in Indian dance should have been the “bare minimum” on the part of Nappytabs and academy producers, she said.

“It is their responsibi­lity to leverage their seat at the table and say, ‘This is not our movement dialect, this is not who we are, there is a history of erasing South Asians and people of color in this industry, and we are not equipped to move forward,’ ” said McDaniel.

To gloss over the “Naatu Naatu” omission and instead celebrate Sunday’s performanc­e as a win for multicultu­ral diversity and inclusion is a “damaging and dangerous” act of erasure that renders South Asian talent invisible, said McDaniel, who says she has asked to meet with Nappytabs to help them and the industry avoid future missteps.

“It can actually be positive change that comes from this,” she said. “They can become allies yet if they can apologize and move forward with more cultural literacy.”

‘Opportunit­ies in terms of the scale and magnitude such as the Oscars or anything of that nature happen once in a blue moon.’

— Rohit Gijare, dancer and choreograp­her

 ?? THE PERFORMANC­E Myung J. Chun Los Angeles Times ?? of “Naatu Naatu” should have showcased South Asian talent, some argue.
THE PERFORMANC­E Myung J. Chun Los Angeles Times of “Naatu Naatu” should have showcased South Asian talent, some argue.
 ?? Myung J. Chun Los Angeles Times ?? “RRR” won the Oscar for original song for the viral toe-tapper “Naatu Naatu.” But many think the academy did not search hard enough for South Asian talent for the live performanc­e of the song during the ceremony.
Myung J. Chun Los Angeles Times “RRR” won the Oscar for original song for the viral toe-tapper “Naatu Naatu.” But many think the academy did not search hard enough for South Asian talent for the live performanc­e of the song during the ceremony.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States