The song “Naatu Naatu” from the global crossover hit film “RRR” apparently made Academy members want to put on their dancing shoes, as the tune became the first number from a fully homegrown Indian film to get nominated for a best original song Oscar Tuesday morning.
The infectiousness of the large-scale production number that hosts the song in the film had made “Naatu Naatu” a favorite to make the final five going into this week’s Academy Awards nominations, after it earlier made the music branch’s shortlist of 15 eligible numbers. It got a further boost in visibility when it won the best song award at the Golden Globes Jan. 10, with M.M. Keeravaani — the composer of the film’s score, and co-writer of its many songs — coming over from India to accept the trophy.
If “Naatu Naatu” wins, it won’t be the first tune written by Indian songwriters to pick up an Oscar. That first happened at the 2019 Oscars, when “Jai Ho,” from the film “Slumdog Millionaire” (that year’s best picture winner), prevailed, with composer A.R. Rahman coming up a double-winner as he also won best score. But “Slumdog” was a British production, despite its Indian setting.
Rahman has been cheering on “RRR” and its signature song himself, tweeting that the win at the Globes was “incredible” and a “paradigm shift.”
“RRR” was not in the running for best international film, due to India not submitting the film as its official pick for the category. There was a groundswell of interest in seeing the film get nominated for best picture, but that wasn’t sufficient to get it across the finish line. Still, the Oscars may enjoy a substantial boost in interest among international viewers if producers mount a live version of “Naatu Naatu” for the telecast.
“Naatu Naatu” is a large part of why American audiences took an interest in “RRR” in the first place, as a short clip of the song and the “hook step” dance performed by the film’s highly charismatic leads, Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr., which came out months before the movie went into U.S. release, became a TikTok phenomenon. When the film finally reached American screens and audiences got to see the full four-minute number, few were disappointed, even if the full production was not so easily replicated.
When “RRR” had a screening at the TCL Chinese Theatre the night before the Golden Globes, sponsored by the American Cinematheque and Beyond Fest — with at least a few Academy voters in attendance — dozens of attendees took to the floor in front of the giant Imax screen to dance along with “Naatu Naatu” for four gleeful minutes.
“It’s true that I have composed music for the movie ‘RRR,’ but the best music I have heard today is your laughs and applause,” Keeravani told the crowd after the raucous Chinese screening. “I wish to listen to that music on and on, again and again, and forever.”
In a Variety story about the making of “Naatu Naatu,” Keeravaani (whose music is accompanied by lyrics by Chandrabose) and director S.S. Rajamouli talked about the role the light-hearted song serves in an otherwise often tense and action-filled crowd-pleaser.
“I did not guess there would be this kind of response for this song, even in my dreams,” said Keeravaani. “But as a paradoxical statement, it’s a dream coming true.” The composer is getting this American attention after having composed scores and songs for 420 Indian films over the past 33 years.
“When I envisioned the ‘Naatu Naatu’ song,” said director S.S. Rajamouli, “while both of them (the actors) are great dancers, I didn’t want the steps to be so complicated that people can’t do it. It should be like any two people — whether it be friends, mother and daughter, father and son, two brothers or two sisters — would see it and feel like, ‘Let’s try this.’ And they did; millions and millions of people were trying to do the steps and posting on it. It became such a big phenomenon when we released the song, and it clearly (increased) public interest in the film.”
Keeravaani says the beat has a great deal to do with the popularity — although it’s so fast that, like videography of a hummingbird’s wings, you almost have to slow it down to recognize it. “The beat is 6/8 — that’s not very frequently heard from the West, but more frequently heard from India and sometimes from Africa and countries like that,” says the composer. “To be precise, it’s even a South Indian kind of beat, not so much North Indian. And in ‘Naatu Naatu,’ this beat took another dimension and another level of BPM (beats per minute) which is very rarely heard in the West. So that’s what primarily got the attention of the Western audience.” He also points to his singers: “I picked Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava to do justice to this melody and they gave their best. That’s why the song is what it is now.”
Rajamouli said that even before he set his constant musical collaborator to work on it, he puzzled over just how he would fit the joyful song he was envisioning into a movie that, for all its classic Hollywood-style action bravura, has such serious cultural context, dealing with the brutality of colonizers in an earlier era of India. “For any other film, it would be easier, but here, even though it’s a fictional account, I’m telling the audience that these two people are essentially real freedom fighters. But luckily, I essentially saw this as an action sequence, not a dance sequence, and made it a competition. By the time the song starts, we already want Rama being to do something to beat those (British bad) guys,” and taking them on with his friend in a dance competition is a light foreshadowing of more intense battles to come. “So I think the biggest achievement for me was incorporating how the song comes into the film, without breaking the narrative. Because it is a film that deals with a lot of atrocities, and so you have to be careful with how you introduce the more frivolous moments.”
Said Keeravaani: “The ‘Naatu Naatu’ song has to make you forget everything — and not just the viewer who is watching the movie, but the characters from the story, too, need to forget every other thing happening around them and pay their full attention towards the song. And the coda, the end part of the song, consists of so much stamina, you cannot call it merely a song — it is an action sequence.”