Oscars ‘Naatu Naatu’ controversy: South Asian dancers fight for fairness

Nearly a week after the Oscars, the pain and disappointment of a missed opportunity still weighs heavily on the minds of some South Asian American dancers, who are struggling to ensure it never happens again.

Many in the South Asian dance community were appalled by the startling dearth of South Asian representation during Sunday’s Oscars performance “Naatu Naatu.” As singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava were on hand to perform their smash Tollywood hit ‘RRR’ – which made Indian history that night by winning best original song – they were joined on stage by not a single dancer of South Asian descent.

How could the Academy have been so wrong? Especially when, 14 years ago, they succeeded with the staging of AR Rahman’s hit “Slumdog Millionaire” at the 2009 Oscars as part of a widely celebrated four-minute medley.

“[The 2009 Oscars] had Indian singers and it was a multiracial group of dancers and musicians,” says Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who specializes in the history of representations of race and gender in media. “They were really showing that the music had this global force. That’s why people didn’t have a problem at that time.

While Sunday night marked a historic turning point for India, which also won Best Documentary Short for “The Elephant Whisperers” by Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga, the glaring absence of South Asian artists on the Hollywood’s biggest stage was the “last straw” for dancers like Achinta S. McDaniel.

“Some people say, ‘Just be happy with what we have,’ and that’s part of [the problem] — this idea of ​​just accepting leftovers that are thrown at you,” said McDaniel, founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Blue13 Dance Company. Variety. “Just be happy an Indian song got nominated [and won]. Don’t be mad at the overwhelming racism that showed up in the performance.

McDaniel’s agent offered her to serve as an associate consultant for the performance two weeks before the Oscars, but her rep learned that AMPAS-selected choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo – the Los Angeles-based duo known under the name NappyTabs – had already hired his team. (Variety understands that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith was the advisor on the Oscars performance, but NappyTabs were the main choreographers.)

“[Equity is] a lot of what interests me, and that has galvanized so many of my colleagues in the field,” McDaniel says. “Now that is enough. It’s the drop of water that makes the vase overflow.

McDaniel is hosting a Zoom Saturday for South Asians in the dance community to unpack Oscar events and plan ahead for a South Asian summit this summer — an event she hopes to hold in conjunction with the conference. national organization Dance/USA annual.

“It really lit a fire,” McDaniel says. “So many people are joining this Zoom so we can start making real change. We have been silent for too long.

Vikas Arun, a New York dancer and teacher who specializes in Western and Indian rhythmic and percussive dance forms, says Variety there have also been conversations this week about creating a cross-functional advocacy group that can rally on behalf of South Asian artists in times of crisis.

“When other minorities face [incidents like this], they have organizations they can go to,” says Arun. “Our community fails to organize advocacy because there are so few of us. We fight our own fight individually, and there is no central organization. It’s also frustrating for new South Asian artists who aren’t on our level. [and don’t have the connections].”

Davé, author of the 2013 book “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film,” agrees that the “next step” in the conversation is to further interrogate the advocacy of South Asian artists.

“It’s about thinking about representing and advocating for not just directors, writers, and actors, but also performers on a larger scale,” says Davé. “I think the dancers have been left out of this conversation. So when we look at casting agencies and talent agencies, [we need to ask] where are the agents who plead with the establishment?

According to talents such as Ramita Ravi, another professional dancer and choreographer whose agent nominated her for the Oscars, situations like the Oscar performance “unfortunately happen all the time.”

“I can name a handful of personal experiences that follow the same thread,” she says Variety by email. “But the beauty of us coming together is that supporting each other and building a collective, inclusive voice can create such change that it doesn’t continue to happen in the future.”

Interestingly, five days after the awards show, there’s still some confusion as to how production went in the first place. It was initially thought that “RRR” actors NTR Jr. and Ram Charan would perform the dance themselves, but Oscar producer Raj Kapoor detailed in an AMPAS blog post that the actors turned it down because they weren’t. comfortable with time constraints. As such, their characters were represented on stage by Lebanese-Canadian dancer Billy Mustapha and American dancer Jason Glover, who many mistakenly assumed was of South Asian descent.

A source tells Variety that AMPAS then intended to fly over Indian dancers to support the performance, but their work visas failed, prompting NappyTabs to hire their own dancers. (This claim has been disputed by several dancers.)

While a source close to the production says AMPAS tried to ensure the original team from India were involved in every creative decision – a team that included the film’s PR team, the son by SS Rajamouli, Karthikeya Rajamouli, the producers of “RRR” and composer MM Keeravaani – the outrage over the resulting performance also highlights the discrepancy between what representation means to nationals and those within of a diaspora.

“For many South Asian Americans in the United States, we were born and raised in America and feel a very strong sense of belonging here,” says Ravi. “For other generations, and especially immigrants or people living in India, it’s a bit of a different equation – they might be happy to be invited to the table, while the diaspora wants to be part of building Table. In this way, I think the idea of ​​representation is very different from one diaspora to another.

Davé adds: “The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, and when you come from this medium and this environment, you do not see the injustices that occur in the diaspora and in Hollywood. SO [the ‘RRR’ team] was thrilled to win an Oscar — and rightly so.

But for those in the diaspora, representation matters a lot, says Davé.

“We see inequality in major American industries, and it reinforces the idea that South Asians are outsiders who live on the other side of the world and are not part of the culture and the history. of Hollywood and the United States, which is not true. South Asians have been in Hollywood and for many years have been coerced into tiny roles or forced into hiding [altogether]. So to try to diminish that, in a time when we’ve seen so much progress – it’s problematic.

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