On February 22, 2009 — 26 years after an Indian first won an Oscar (Bhanu Athaiya for costume design in Richard Attenborough’s UK-India co-production Gandhi) — three more Indians, Resul Pookutty, Gulzar and AR Rahman joined her by winning Oscars for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a British film that told a quintessential rags-to-riches story of an Indian. And now, 14 years later, we have secured another Best Original Song win, but this time, it’s for an Indian film, RRR, even if the song and what it signifies isn’t altogether different.
Back in 2009, we saw a rather subdued Rahman, surrounded by a few drummers, performing Jai Ho and O Saaya on a simple, unembellished Oscar stage, whereas Rahul Sipligunj, Kaala Bhairava and the assortment of dancers, against the elaborate recreation of Ukraine’s Mariinsky Palace, fashioned a set-piece of rambunctious showmanship. What unites both Jai Ho and Naatu Naatu is that at their core, they are joyous victory calls which celebrate the triumph of the underdog. While Jai Ho celebrates Jamal coming up trumps in a quiz show, Naatu Naatu is about Alluri Sitaram Raju and Komaram Bheem cocking a snook at imperialism while outdancing British oppressors. You might call them just a drop in the ocean that is Indian cinema music, but there’s no denying that the songs have given a dark world something to cheer about.
So, what are the larger repercussions for Indian music and cinema, given the outpouring global love for Naatu Naatu? “It’s just long due. I feel happy to open doors and for the world to embrace my culture,” Keeravani is reported to have said backstage. Will this provide a new fillip to the interest of the West in the sound of Indian music? Or will the excitement fade away as some new beats take over? Will this pave the way for Indian chartbusters to feature more regularly at Hollywood awards? Or will we have to suffer another decade-long wait?
The truth is it’s not as though Indian film music has not been recognised on the world platform earlier. Naatu Naatu comes on the heels of other pioneering achievers who have popularised Indian music. How do you look past the enormous stature of Rahman, who’s perhaps the most recognisable face the world over currently when it comes to Indian music and cinema? How do you disregard the legacy of Ravi Shankar, the first Indian ever to get nominated for a ‘Best Composer’ Oscar?
And yet, Naatu Naatu is seminal for Indian cinema music history in fresh and unforeseen ways. The Telugu word ‘Naatu’ signifies the local, the ethnic, the raw and rustic. For all its native roots, Naatu Naatu has transcended boundaries — linguistic, cultural, regional, national. It easily transforms into Naacho Naacho in Hindi with the right nudge from lyricist Riya Mukherjee. The essential magic is of course the tug of the show and spectacle accompanying it, and the mad energy and hook of not just the lines and the rhythm but the canonised dance step, a creation of choreographer Prem Rakshith. And then, of course, there is the digital world and social media, which assure virality—and which influences and inspires musicians to create work that has quick appeal.
That’s why Naatu Naatu is a song you make Instagram Reels with, not a song you hum quietly to yourself. That’s why even a South Korean ambassador Chang Jae-bok made a video of himself dancing to it uninhibitedly. Naatu Naatu is far removed from the melodies of the Golden Era of Indian film music; it is about being in the moment and letting your body create its own music.
The recognition of this song will push composers to embrace the local. It will push choreographers to not compromise on physical performances. It will push filmmakers to create an unforgettable visual experience—which, in turn, will accentuate the appeal of the song (as it has happened with Naatu Naatu). Naatu Naatu is a wholesome salute to the performative roots of Indian film music—the Natya Shastra, and theatre and folk traditions like jatra, lavni, pandvani and more.
Above all, the song is an illustration of the complex, independent entity that is the Indian film song and all the departments that combine to make it. It is as much about the vision of the choreographer and its realisation by the performer as it is about the cinematographer and the editor forging the larger vision of the director. Also, at a time when the purpose of songs is in question in the Indian film structure, this recognition drums in the integral place of a song set-piece within the Indian film narrative and its progression — be it providing a break or relief from the story or encompassing, augmenting and carrying them forward and how it links up with all that precedes and follows.
Indian films are thought of in the West as musicals, but are also often disregarded, overlooked, and stereotyped for it. Naatu Naatu is an invitation to go deeper into a one-of-its-kind aesthetic paradigm — its history and ongoing evolution — that needs a wider recognition and celebration. It has taken one song to show the world how an Indian film song can ultimately be a film within a film.