‘Naatu Naatu’ Oscars Performance Criticized for Lack of South Asian Representation

Critics noted the Oscar-winning number was staged by non-Indian choreographers or background dancers

Jimmy Kimmel and "RRR" dancers
Jimmy Kimmel and "RRR" dancers (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Following “Naatu Naatu”s historic Oscar win for Best Original Song the live performance at Sunday’s performance has come under fire for its exclusion of South Asian choreographers and ensemble dancers.

Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava, who recorded the song for the “RRR” soundtrack, sang onstage alongside two lead dancers in place of stars Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. The telecast recreated the scene from the film in which their characters, Ram and Bheem, face off against a large party of white Brits using the power of Telugu dance.

Critics pointed out that the performance was choreographed by “So You Think You Can Dance” duo Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, neither of whom are of Indian descent. Nor did the ensemble prominently feature dancers of South Asian descent, a missed opportunity for wider representation, critics said. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not respond to TheWrap’s inquiry about how many dancers were of South Asian descent; a representative told IndieWire it would be “incorrect” to say that there were few, if any, without clarifying further.)

The Academy did not comment further on the backlash. In an interview with AMPAS’ magazine A.frame, producer Raj Kapoor said he worked with the film’s creative team – including producers, public relations representatives, and composer M.M. Keeravaani. “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith provided a video breakdown of the choreography, which Nappytabs was selected to translate to the stage.

On social media, many underlined the extreme dearth of opportunities for South Asian artists in Hollywood, especially on its greatest platform of the year.

“Opportunities for South Asians especially in Hollywood have been few and far between because Indian dance is so niche,” choreographer Joya Kazi posted on Instagram. “… My agents submitted me for this and I was told that the choreographers want to work with dancers they already know.” Adding that there were “plenty of talented South Asian dancers and choreographers to choose from,” she continued:

“I’m just wondering why I don’t see people of the culture in the room in these rehearsal videos. Are we going to see even one South Asian dancer on that stage? Why isn’t that cast filled with brown bodies?”

Eshani Patel, an L.A.-based Bollywood Fusion dancer and choreographer, called the performance “a total bittersweet moment for representation.”

“It’s an incredible moment to see Indian (and especially Tollywood) cinema and music represented on this huge stage BUT it was also a rare opportunity to allow at least two South Asian male dancers to represent our community as well,” she said. (According to Yahoo! News Canada, dancers Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover are Lebanese-Canadian and American, respectively.)

“To see ‘Indian-looking’ dancers represent instead of our own people saddens me. As Indian Americans, we are JUST starting to see ourselves represented on Western platforms – let’s do it right.”

IndieWire’s Proma Khosla was among several journalists who pointed out larger implications of the casting choice.

“When producers and directors repeatedly tell South Asian artists that they need more experience and stronger relationships but still pass them over for chances like this one, the takeaway from the talent perspective is that they don’t have what it takes,” she wrote.

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