Several South Asian American talents have voiced their frustration over the lack of South Asian representation in the recent Oscars performance of “Naatu Naatu,” a song from the Tollywood film “RRR.”
Although Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava, who sang “Naatu Naatu” for the Indian Telugu-language film, performed at the 95th Academy Awards on Sunday, none of the dancers who performed alongside them were reportedly of South Asian descent. Telugu “RRR” lead actors N.T. Rama Rao Jr., also known as Jr. NTR, and Ram Charan were supposed to participate in the Sunday performance but later declined due to scheduling conflicts. They were instead replaced by American dancer Jason Glover and Canadian dancer Billy Mustapha, who were dressed to look like the film’s protagonists, according to CBS News. Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo, two non-South Asian choreographers, were hired to cast and direct the Academy Awards performance.
“I liked that they went a more diverse route, because the movie itself became this global phenomenon,” Shivani Reddy, a Telugu American film and TV critic, told CBS.
It just felt very exclusionary that the one race they didn’t include was the one that was supposed to be represented because of the film and where it’s from. It’s unfortunate because there are so many South Asian dancers that I know that are in the industry trying to get into those spaces that just don’t get afforded those opportunities. And for the one time that we maybe could have gotten access, we were denied.
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The controversy surrounding the live performance reportedly began the day before the Academy Awards premiered on Sunday after dancer Lauren Gottlieb uploaded a video of their rehearsal, which was later deleted. Several people from the South Asian American arts community expressed outrage at the performance, with Joya Kazi, an Los Angeles-based choreographer and member of the Television Academy, revealing in an Instagram post that her agent submitted her as a potential choreographer, but she was never considered.
My agents submitted me for this and I was told that the choreographers want to work with dancers they already know. Valid. I get it. I also don’t need to book everything under the sun, because there are plenty of talented South Asian dancers and choreographers to choose from. I’m just wondering why I don’t see people of the culture in the room in these rehearsal videos. Are we going to see even one South Asian dancer on that stage? Why isn’t that cast filled with brown bodies?
Similarly, Ramita Ravi, a bicoastal dancer and choreographer, also reportedly received the same response after her agent reached out to the production to recommend her as a choreographer for the dance.
Speaking to IndieWire before the Academy Awards telecast, Ravi admitted that she was not surprised by the outcome.
Here are people like me, like Joya, like Kavita Rao, like Achinta [McDaniel], like Nakul [Dev Mahajan] who have very, very much been in the industry. [We] have the agents, have the reps, have union status, have all of it and still were not … considered for a job like this where it’s our culture on display.
Vikas Arun, who is noted as the first South Asian artist-in-residence at the American Tap Dance Foundation, addressed the issue in an Instagram post on Saturday, noting in the post’s description that his message was “directed at the creative of the segment” and not the dancers.
“The dancers have no say in the casting or choice of choreographer and simply do the best with what they’re given,” he wrote.
Following the controversy, a representative from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) told IndieWire in a statement that it was “incorrect” that there were few, if any, South Asian artists who participated in the “Naatu Naatu” performance.
However, the statement did not clarify how many South Asian dancers were featured in the performance, as the AMPAS did not provide further information.