At Sunday’s Academy Awards show, many South Asian viewers will be eagerly awaiting “Naatu Naatu,” the music sequence from that hit film “RRR” that is being played at the ceremony and is the favorite to win Best Original Song .
Having won the Golden Globes, the recognition of ‘Naatu Naatu’ this weekend would be one of the first times a film from the subcontinent would be recognized on the Oscars stage, experts said. It would be an important moment for Indians around the world, representing a change in how the West views their cinema.
For decades, Western moviegoers thought of Indian films as song, dance and melodrama, said Sangita Gopal, an associate professor of English at the University of Oregon who studies Indian cinema.
“That factor that made Indian cinema exotically bad before is exotically good now,” he said.
Moreover, Indian film industries have not necessarily taken care to cover their craft to the Western eye, anyway.
“Indian cinema is made for Indian audiences,” he said. “That’s true [director S.S. Rajamouli], very. I don’t think he was thinking, “I’m going to do a crossover movie.” He was saying, “I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing so successfully.”
But the overwhelming love for “Naatu Naatu” and “RRR” may mean American tastes are changing, he said. Unlike the song and dance numbers of its predecessors, “Naatu Naatu” seemed to strike a chord. Apart from being an earworm, it does not interrupt the story of the film but rather takes the story forward, said Gopal.
“Even within Indian cinema, song and dance sequences are virtually disappearing,” he said. “’RRR’ has a traditional song and dance sequence but is used less traditionally. This is a very integrated song in the story. And that helps create acceptance.”
The global enthusiasm for Indian films is no longer confined to the diaspora, he said, and in a way, ‘RRR’ was all set to be the one to break out. “RRR” came at the right time for audiences, Gopal said, and entered the American zeitgeist at a very specific cultural moment.
The anti-colonial story of two freedom fighters turning against the British Raj blends perfectly with discussions of racism, imperialism and the establishment that have developed in the Western world in recent years.
“There’s an anti-establishment mood that the film was able to tap into,” he said. “Although Indian critics, including myself, have rightly seen the film’s potential to be problematic, from the perspective of an audience member not really familiar with caste politics or Hindu nationalist ideology, this is a film about fighting colonialism”.
Unlike the villains in movies coming out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which feature similar fantasy fight sequences and good vs. evil struggles, the villains and heroes of “RRR” are real and concrete.
“Although it is very ahistorical, imaginary and mythical, these two people were real and the British colonized India,” he said. “It has this kind of historical realism.”
When it first launched early last year, American audiences had already developed a taste for large-scale international productions, with hit shows like “Squid Game” pushing things like reading subtitles to them, Gopal said.
However, some Indian viewers say they can recognize casteism and Hindu nationalism playing out beneath the film’s surface spectacle. For Gopal, the story portrays his caste-oppressed characters as weak and in need of a dominant caste hero to rescue them. Moreover, Muslim characters are completely absent even though they were heavily involved in India’s freedom struggle.
“It’s very clear that there is a hierarchy at work,” Gopal said.
Rajamouli, the writer and director, did not respond to a request for comment. He has previously said that there is no ideological bent to “RRR”. In a Q&A session at a screening of the film in Los Angeles, he spoke about the representation of Hinduism in the story.
“In the film, what I’m portraying is actually a way of life that has existed for many, many centuries or centuries,” he said.
“RRR” feels to many like the solidification of Tollywood – South India’s Telugu film industry – as a global force. Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said Telugu cinema in particular has exploded in popularity over the past decade.
“RRR” came largely on the heels of 2015’s “Bahubali,” another Telugu epic directed by Rajamouli. Now with “RRR”, experts are seeing a shift in the subcontinent where South Indian films are rising to meet what many feel is missing from Bollywood, which refers to the Hindi film industry in Mumbai.
“Bollywood has melodrama and then Telugu cinema took it to a whole other level,” said Bhattacharya Mehta.
For a south Indian audience that rarely sees itself represented in the films coming out of Mumbai, such films can stir up representation, he said – they present “a unique south Indian aesthetic”.
Gopal said “Naatu Naatu’s” nomination represents the next step in Indian cinema’s international presence, but when it comes to foreign blockbusters being recognized by the academy or nominated as films themselves, she feels they are a long way off.
“’RRR’ brings together so many currents of world cinema,” he said, “from Hollywood to Hong Kong action, even to an older Bollywood style of the populist hero. In a way, it represents a collection of both national film history and global trends.”