You would think being the first song from an Indian film to win an Oscar would be a sign of a major step forward. Some sort of ethnic glass ceiling shattering at Hollywood’s most glittering evening. But that is actually the opposite of what this year’s performance of the Best Song nominee showcased.
I have to admit – they got me. Put a guy with a black beard on stage in one of the leading roles – just like in the movie – and I assumed it was some up-and-coming South Asian dancer who would all soon hear about. But no. Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover, while clearly super talented, have no roots from the Indian subcontinent.
Because while the steps were well executed and the celebration was around the pivotal scene of a film criticizing the colonial outlook on Indian culture – there was not one person of Indian descent on the stage. Not even when half the scene was played by Indians in India demonstrating to the British the local stamina far outpacing the colonizer in dancing.
Why The Lack Of Diversity?
We could speculate on all the reasons how this came to pass, or why the stars of the film, purportedly wanting the focus to be on the vocalists, were not available to perform the dance themselves. (Was it really because one of them thought there wouldn’t be enough rehearsal time?) Visa complications apparently kept the original choreographer away until the dress rehearsals.
But the award of the choreography to Nappytabs, a dancing duo associated with the So You Think You Can Dance reality TV franchise, left most South Asian Americans in the industry, and otherwise shaking their heads.
If indeed, Ram Charan and NTR Jr. felt they got enough out of the film, and didn’t need the pressure of a rushed performance, the rest of us sure could have used the boost…
We Still Have Work To Do On Diversity
From years of being told they don’t have enough experience, to now being told that they weren’t being chosen because they weren’t among the dancers Nappytabs knew, it feels like the same old story in Tinseltown: a referral club that shuts out anyone new. And if you can’t get cast as an Indian dancer for an Indian song from an Indian movie at the Oscars… then, what hope is there?
The Oscar performance of Naatu Naatu shows the system-wide disregard for authenticity or recognition of how a moment like this could showcase a song, a film, and indeed, a nation, through its specificity. Imagine not one person on set saying – hang on who’s doing the Indian check? Even if it is as token. Blatant disregard for acknowledgment of the culture from which this song and film stem is a stark example of cultural appropriation. One that further underlines what has been true for a long time – brown people have very few public spaces to occupy – even when creating our own cultural representations.
So, Oscar night was a double slap – first because using non-South Indian dancers, choreographers, and producers undercuts the film’s overall message: stand up to colonialism. Second, it also erases the specificity of Indianness since the film was made in Tollywood – not Bollywood – the Telugu-speaking areas of the south, and the original dance moves are inspired from that folk tradition.
Those of us from the Southern states, my family included, have long felt our cultures play second fiddle to Hindi or Punjabi, Northern languages that tend to dominate the film and music industries.
While the film’s popularity and the song’s win are a watershed moment for Indian cinema as a whole, it also showcases how high the barriers within the American entertainment system remain.
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