After controversial ‘Naatu Naatu’ Oscars performance, South Asian dancers are fighting for representation

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 determined to make sure it never happens again.

Many in the South Asian dance community were dismayed by the staggering dearth of South Asian representation in the “Naatu Naatu” performance at Sunday’s Academy Awards. As singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava were on hand to perform their Tollywood hit song “RRR”, which made Indian history that night by winning best original song, not a single South Asian dancer joined them on stage. .

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

“[The 2009 Oscars] it had Indian singers and it was a multiracial group of dancers and musicians,” explains 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 the media. “They were really showing that music has this global force. That’s why people didn’t have any problems at the time.”

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

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

McDaniel’s agent pitched her as an associate consultant for the performance two weeks before the Oscars, but her representative was told that AMPAS-selected choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo, the Los Angeles-based duo known as NappyTabs, they had already hired their team. (Variety understands that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith was advising on the Oscars performance, but that NappyTabs were the primary choreographers).

“[Equity is] a big part of what interests me, and this has motivated many of my colleagues in the field,” says McDaniel. Now it’s enough. This is the last straw.”

McDaniel is hosting a Saturday Zoom for South Asians in the dance community to unpack the Oscars events and plan ahead for a South Asia Summit this summer, an event he hopes to host in conjunction with the national organization Dance/USA’s annual conference. .

“This really lit a fire,” McDaniel says. “A lot of people are joining this Zoom so we can start making real change. It’s been too long that we’ve been quiet.”

Vikas Arun, a New York-based dancer and teacher specializing in Western and Indian rhythmic and percussive dance forms, tells Variety There have also been talks this week about creating a cross-functional advocacy group that can come together on behalf of South Asian artists in times of crisis.

“When other minorities face [incidents like this], they have organizations they can turn to,” says Arun. “Our community is poor in having organized defense because we are very few. We are individually fighting our own fight, and there is no central organization. It also makes it 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 question the defense of South Asian artists.

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

According to talents like Ramita Ravi, another professional dancer and choreographer whose agent nominated her for the Academy Awards, situations like the Oscar presentation “unfortunately happen all the time.”

“I can name a handful of personal experiences that follow the same thread,” he says. Variety via email “But the beauty of us coming together is that supporting each other and building a collective and inclusive voice can make a difference so that this doesn’t continue to happen in the future.”

Interestingly, five days after the awards, there is still some confusion about how the production went in the first place. It was initially thought that the “RRR” actors NTR Jr. and Ram Charan would perform the dance themselves, but Oscar producer Raj Kapoor detailed in an AMPAS blog that the actors refused, as they did not feel comfortable doing it due to to time constraints. As such, his characters were portrayed on stage by Lebanese Canadian dancer Billy Mustapha and American dancer Jason Glover, who was mistakenly assumed by many to be of South Asian descent.

A source tells Variety that AMPAS intended to fly over dancers from India 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 that the original Indian team was involved in every creative decision, a team that included the film’s PR team, SS Rajamouli’s son Karthikeya Rajamouli , the producers of “RRR” and composer MM Keeravaani. the resulting outrage over performance also highlights the divergence in what representation means for nationals versus those who are part of a diaspora.

“For many South Asian Americans in the US, we were born and raised in the United States and feel a great sense of belonging here,” Ravi explains. “For other generations, and especially immigrants or people living in India, it’s a bit of a different equation: They may be excited to be invited to the table, while the diaspora wants to be a part of building the table. In that way, I think the idea of ​​representation is found very differently in the diaspora.”

Davé adds: “The Indian film industry is the biggest in the world, and when you come from that background and environment, you don’t see the injustices that are happening in the diaspora and in Hollywood. So [the ‘RRR’ team] I was excited to win an Oscar, and rightly so.”

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

“We’re seeing inequality in major industries in the United States, and what it does is reinforce this idea that South Asians are foreigners living on the other side of the world, and not part of the culture and history. of Hollywood and the United States, which is not true. South Asians have been in Hollywood, and for many years they have been forced to play roles that were minuscule or that they were forced to hide. [altogether]. So trying to lessen that, in an era where we’ve seen so much progress, that’s problematic.”

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