How the Oscars Failed South Asian Artists with Its ‘Naatu Naatu’ Performance

14 March 2023

It seemed like a fairy tale. A commercial Indian movie and irresistible Telugu song made it to the 95th Academy Awards, where the performance of eventual Best Song winner “Naatu Naatu” should have been nothing but a celebration and a milestone for Indian artists.

But when it came to the televised performance, the Oscars opted to work with non-Indian choreographers Napoleon & Tabitha Dumo, who have an existing relationship with the show, and dancers they had prior experience with — none of whom are believed to be of South Asian descent. (A representative for AMPAS, when asked about the background of the performance’s dancers, told IndieWire it “was incorrect” that there were few, if any South Asian artists in the performance, though they did not immediately provide further information when asked for clarification.)

According to the official AMPAS publication A.Frame, film stars Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr were originally slated to be part of the televised segment, reprising their roles as Ram (Charan) and Bheem (Rama Rao Jr). When they declined to perform onstage in late February, producers brought in lead dancers who strongly resemble the actors. The ensemble was already deliberately diverse instead of the all-white background cast of the movie (a smart decision given the Oscars’ history with whitewashing).

The casting sent waves of backlash through the South Asian-American arts community as early as the day before the day before the telecast, when videos surfaced online from dancer Lauren Gottlieb, an American dancer who has worked in India for years but is not of South Asian descent. Gottlieb has since deleted the photos and videos of her rehearsing “Naatu Naatu” for the Academy Awards, an opportunity that should have been nothing short of gift-wrapped for South Asian choreographers and performers (she also incorrectly referred to the song as Bollywood). Many had believed that cultural representation was all but guaranteed on the Oscars stage.

Joya Kazi, an L.A.-based choreographer and member of the Television Academy who worked on “Never Have I Ever,” “New Girl,” and more, posted on Instagram that her agents submitted her as a potential choreographer and while she didn’t think anything of not booking the gig, she was shocked to see Gottlieb’s videos on Saturday.

“I was told that the choreographers want to work with dancers they already know,” Kazi wrote in her post. “I get it. I also don’t need to book everything under the sun, because there are plenty of talented South Asian dancers and choreographers to choose from…but…respectfully…where is the representation?”

The Oscars performance was generally well-received, but the fact remains that it could have highlighted established or upcoming South Asian talent on stage and behind-the-scenes, or at least visually reimagined the song from a performance perspective.

Here’s the energetic performance of “Naatu Naatu” from #RRR at the #Oscars. https://t.co/ndiKiHeOT5 pic.twitter.com/Lf2nP826c4

— Variety (@Variety) March 13, 2023

Ramita Ravi, a bicoastal dancer and choreographer repped by Bloc (the same company as Kazi), received the same response when her agents reached out about her performing at the Oscars. Ahead of the show, she said she wasn’t surprised by the decision, and has grown “numb” to occurrences like this. When she realized that Gottlieb’s posts were about “Naatu Naatu,” it added a whole layer of discomfort.

“Here are people like me, like Joya, like Kavita Rao, like Achinta [McDaniel], like Nakul [Dev Mahajan] who have very, very much been in the industry,” Ravi told IndieWire ahead of the Oscars. “[We] have the agents, have the reps, have union status, have all of it and still were not … considered for a job like this where it’s our culture on display.”

Ravi reiterated that she wasn’t surprised — a sentiment shared by her peers — which further underscores the lack of access and representation felt by South Asian artists across the board and at the highest levels. Ravi, whose credits include “So You Think You Can Dance?” the Miss America pageant, Coachella, and more, repeatedly used the phrase “not good enough.”

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.

Ravi’s collaborator Vikas Arun, the first South Asian to receive residency at the American Tap Dance Foundation and also to be in “STOMP,” posted a four-minute video directly addressing his peers in the dance industry and noting that their actions don’t line up with extensive conversations about authenticity and inclusion. Not only were none of the performers South Asian, Arun pointed out, but most of them did not have experience in Indian classical, folk, or even commercial dance.

“You can’t just jump into Indian folk dance and think you can pull it off in a week correctly,” he said, pointing out that many train in these styles for years.

Other dancers were diplomatic in their criticism of the Oscars, tagging the official Academy Instagram or referring to decision-makers and those at the table while explicitly stating that no dancer, choreographer, or producer is squarely to blame. Kapoor’s involvement at least means that there was a South Asian voice involved in high-level decision making.

The same conversation came to light in October 2021, when Broadway’s upcoming “Come Fall in Love,” (based on the popular Hindi film “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge”) was announced with a white male lead instead of Indian as in the original feature (the show’s fall preview received mostly positive reviews). For director Aditya Chopra and his Indian production team, adding non-Indian roles and performers is representation, not the other way around, and it can be difficult for those on different sides of this conversation to meet in the middle.

“I don’t think anyone realizes what how hard it is to be at that same level and create space for yourself when there is no one that looks like you,” Ravi said. “I’m constantly feeling like I have to prove myself, I have to be better — like when I do this milestone, when I do that milestone, I will finally get the recognition I’m craving. It’s not about external validation, it’s just about being respected.”

In 2009, Rujuta Vaidya worked on televised performance of “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” at the Oscars. Most of the performers were not South Asian, but thanks to Vaidya’s persistence and advocacy, a handful of her New York-based team made it to the stage. The challenge should have opened doors for others in the community to follow in her footsteps.

Perhaps most damning is the juxtaposition of the Oscars on Sunday night and a Thursday event celebrating South Asian excellence in entertainment hosted by Priyanka Chopra, Mindy Kaling, and more. The guest list included everyone from Charan and Rama Rao Jr. to “Definition, Please” director Sujata Day to 15-year-old Sway Bhatia from “Succession” and “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” on Disney+.

Chopra celebrated the achievements of South Asian artists who have been creating space for decades, paving the way for new talent to shine. “Naatu Naatu” ended up winning Best Original Song, and “The Elephant Whisperers” took home Best Documentary Short, showing that South Asian artistry does indeed have a place at the Academy Awards — if not in the telecast itself just yet.

“I don’t think anyone intentionally wanted to be disrespectful,” Ravi said. “But I think this is a miss — there was a really big opportunity here to be able to celebrate South Asian artists in a more profound way and they didn’t do that. If we do this again, I hope that they can see that and prioritize the South Asian artists who are in the industry and who could have been on the stage. That’s really the biggest takeaway.”

Update, 3/14/23 3pm ET: Story has been updated to include context from A.Frame.

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