Music aficionados in North America, especially South Asian immigrants, are waiting with bated breath for an Oscar for RRR (Rise Roar Revolt), as two Telugu actors dancing and stomping in abandon to ‘Naatu Naatu’ have already made the song a runaway success. RRR’s cultural zeitgeist and ‘Naatu’ earworms have waylaid other contenders en route to the Oscars aspiring for the best language film award.
The three-hour film’s horsepower whips the audience into a frenzy and has raked in more than $150 million USD at the global box office since March 2022. The Associated Press classified the Indian action epic as a global phenomenon. Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards have already fired up the filmmaker’s international aspirations.
The Indian blockbuster hit over 1,000 North American screens and over 8,000 worldwide last year, according to Vulture magazine last year. The hoots and wolf whistles whenever its revered stars, Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao Jr., made their appearances echoed the wild, contagious energy of audiences.
Karunakar Reddy Papala, President of the Telugu Association in Canada talked of how RRR has scored a hit with all the elements of a great picture, storyline, songs, and narration. “With millions of Telugu-speaking people in this region, the film is a springboard to the spread of our culture.”
The eye-catching dance
The shortlisting of the ‘Naatu Naatu’ song danced by the two stars Charan and NTR Jr. for the best original song category is a high achievement for film director S.S. Rajamouli’s adventure saga. What exhilarates the viewers are the multiple shots in the dance clips that ramp up or slow down the duo’s movements, turning their machismo into inviting vigor and physicality. With every step Charan and NTR Jr. take, they kick dirt and dust into the air, adding a sense of mysticism.
The fast-paced ‘Naatu Naatu’ was composed by M.M. Keeravani and sung by Kala Bhairava and Rahul Sipligunj. Keeravani also made India proud, taking the baton as best music director awarded by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
One of the most expensive films made in India, RRR is set in 1920s pre-independent India. ‘Naatu Naatu’ is part of a pivotal sequence when Alluri Sitarama Raju (Charan) and Komaram Bheem (NTR Jr.) dance, tripping up snooty colonialists with fast and furious footwork during a grand garden party. Raju and Bheem provoke a dance challenge and work up the audience, mostly British men and their ladies into a frenzy. The song sequence reaches a crescendo when the duo outpace pompous officers impressing the shrieking, cheering ladies.
RRR ‘s timeline is of the 1920s during the British Raj, which saw a proliferation of dances. Endurance competitions and marathons were commonplace, much like the dance-off shown during ‘Naatu Naatu’ with the dancers’ limbs pounding in unison.
Both Charan and NTR Jr. are popular Tollywood stars. NTR Jr. is recognized as one of the best dancers in South India and is known for his fluidity and grace. Charan comes from a family of Telugu film dancers. He is known for his swift and meticulous leg movements. Choreographer Prem Rakshith crafted steps with classical dance, hip-hop, and precise leg movements with the two in mind.
Despite other pulse-racing attractions in the movie, like an animal fight, chase and battle with a tiger, a train explosion, disturbing flashback and farfetched fight choreography, this film’s catchy number steals the show.
The catch is that not many foreigners or South Indian immigrants understand the lyrics In Telugu — a language spoken in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But music has no language barrier and ’Naatu Naatu’, which means “dance, dance”, is a brilliant showcasing of the history and vibrancy of Tollywood dances.
Impressive lyrics by Chandrabose strongly suggest you go “Like an aggressive bull jumping in the dust of fields, dance like you’ve eaten green chilis with Jowar rotis, like a sharp knife…like the song that can make your fingers snap in rhythm…” The feet cannot stop, ‘Naatu Naatu’ is on the upbeat.
Hopes for an Oscar
The film, despite international appreciation, still faces an uphill task. “It probably won’t be recognized in the technical categories, nor for its acting and screenwriting,” according to Clayton Davis, the senior awards editor at Variety. Despite being shrugged off as India’s only international offer for the upcoming 2023 Oscars, RRR has been a critical favourite and has also been nominated for five Critics Choice Awards this year, including best picture.
To earn itself an Oscar there are appreciable support elements and props that lend atmosphere to the mish-mash setup. Rajamouli had the dance scene shot in August 2021 against the backdrop of Marian Palace, the official ceremonial residence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
It is made to look like there is not much attention paid to the costumes worn. The clothes are especially nondescript, but they peg the period of the film. Pants flapping around lanky legs, dangling ties, spotless white shirts, shoes not meant for dancing, muddy and dirty, unruly hair and beards that have not seen a barber for days. The stress is on impromptu dressing, not for the occasion.
The costumes have been customized for comfort. Take the suspender section of the dance sequence. In these unleashed movements, the duo tug and pull their suspenders as their feet shuffle sideways at lightning speed, making it look like they’re working the suspenders to make the moves.
The suspenders have been clamped on as curiosity accessories in the dance sequence. Suspenders fell out of favour in the early 20th century, when low pants sat securely on the hips, with belts holding them in place. They wear polished shoes not really meant for dancing and don’t care about kicking up dust. The women are in gowns and fluffy skirts; saris and blouses can hardly be spotted.
With the clothes hardly stealing the show, the vibrancy of Tollywood reflects in the easy hook step where the arms and feet are moving, but the faces remain inexpressive. It needs a great deal of muscle control, focus, and practice and they are the most difficult moves to pull off.
Around 100 variations of the hook steps, two months of rehearsals and 20 days of shooting… that’s what went into creating the perfectly synthesized moves in ‘Naatu Naatu’. Fans across the globe have been trying to learn the hook step. Rakshith, the film’s choreographer has even provided short tutorials online to help with the steps.
There are no brakes for this Naatu phenomenon. There’s non-stop exhilaration urging RRR to reach celestial heights.
Be warned: Stubbed toes are part of the experience to be taken in stride.
Let’s ‘Naatu Naatu’ — turn up the volume, please.
Gita Abraham is a journalist of 45-year standing and has worked in national dallies and magazines in New Delhi including Hindustan Times and India Today. For 15 years she was the Feature Editor of The City TAB in Bangalore. She was also a Professor of Journalism, at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Treading the thin line between fact and fiction, Gita has launched her debut novel “Daughter of the Blue Hills” early this year. She and her husband are snowbirds shuffling between Chennai and Ottawa. She has two daughters and two frisky grandsons who inhabit her world.