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‘RRR,’ the First Indian Film To Be Nominated for Best Song, Simply Had To Win

The suspenders alone deserve an award.

Screenshot from the "Naatu Naatu" dance in RRR

This might be a hot take, but whenever I watch a Bollywood or Tollywood film, I find myself wondering why I ever bother to watch action films that aren’t Bollywood or Tollywood films. Sure, Hollywood films can also provide delightfully over-the-top, spectacularly choreographed action sequences and stylish cinematography, but do they also provide catchy as hell songs and stunning dance sequences in the same film? No. No, they do not. Ergo, I present my case that Bollywood and Tollywood are overall superior.

In 2022, many Westerners discovered this truth at once, thanks to Netflix picking up and proliferating the Tollywood film RRR. RRR—the most expensive Indian film ever made—became a massive hit both within India and across the world. And it’s an excellent example of what makes Indian cinema so incredible: the action, the overall stylishness, and of course, the music and dancing. RRR became too big of a hit for even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to ignore.

RRR missed out on becoming India’s entry into the Best International Film category (each country can only submit one film, and India miscalculated), but its central single, “Naatu Naatu,” became the first song from an Indian film to be nominated for Best Original Song. As a nod to this entire incredible industry that the Oscars has just ignored for ages, it simply had to win. And it did.

Everything about “Naatu Naatu” rules

The song from RRR that made the biggest impression on audiences worldwide was undoubtedly “Naatu Naatu.” Everything about the “Naatu Naatu” sequence is spectacular. The film’s anti-colonialist themes are front and center, with a pastel-colored palace as the backdrop. While India was a British colony from 1858 to 1947, that’s not a British palace. That’s the Mariinsky Palace, the Ukrainian presidential palace. Before Russia invaded, Volodymyr Zelenskyy readily gave RRR’s cast and crew permission to film on-site in Kyiv. He’s a former actor himself. The more you know!

The dance takes place when the film’s protagonists (played by Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) challenge a stiff British jerk into a dance-off involving something other than stuffy, high-society dances. They then proceed to out-dance everyone at the gathering. Hell, they out-dance the audience’s brain cells. Incredibly, the sequence is not sped up or altered in any way. Charan and Rao just dance that hard. There’s extensive legwork done while balancing on one foot, triumphant fist pumps, and the greatest usage of suspenders ever achieved in human history.

Also, the song itself slaps. Written by M. M. Keeravani, it slaps for more reasons than, as the BBC chose to put it, its “catchy tempo.” Hey, BBC? The tempo is just a mathematical count of how fast a song is, bud. It’s like saying a painting has alluring 11×14 proportions. The, ahem, pulsing, uptempo drums and driving, repetitive melodies make it infectious as hell. I encourage you to read and listen to the examples from Adesh Thapliyal’s excellent piece for Pitchfork about teenmaar / kuthu, the fast-tempo frame drum-driven pop genre that forms the heart of “Naatu Naatu.”

The lyrics of the song are up to interpretation, but I quite like Keeravani’s take: “Naatu means ethnicity, ethnic. Whatever I do is purely mine. It’s my own experience, it’s my own way of expression. These are my words, this is my style, look at me, this is who I am.”

“Naatu Naatu” became a global sensation outside of just RRR. Hell, there was a TikTok challenge to recreate the dance. The video of the original sequence currently has 129 million views.

“Naatu Naatu” makes history

A lot of history was made at the 95th Oscars—history that, 95 years in, definitely should have already been made, but I suppose better late than never. Michelle Yeoh was the first Asian actress to ever win Best Actress. Ruth E. Carter became the first Black woman to ever win two Oscars. (To both I say: I love these woman, but SERIOUSLY? THIS LONG?) “Naatu Naatu” was the first song from an Indian film to ever be nominated for Best Original Song, which also made it the first to win. “Naatu Naatu” also became the first Indian song to win Best Original Song at this year’s Golden Globes.

It’s technically not the first Indian song to win Best Original Song at the Oscars. A.R. Rahman won the category for “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, but that Danny Boyle-directed flick is a British film. Still, for as globally popular as Bollywood, Tollywood, and other forms of Indian cinema are becoming worldwide—and as excellent as their quality is—it’s downright bizarre that a song from an Indian film has never been nominated until now. So damn straight RRR should win!

By the way, there is a difference between Bollywood and Tollywood. To make a long story short, Bollywood is centralized in northern India and largely shot in Mumbai, a.k.a. Bombay, hence “Bollywood.” Over a hundred languages are spoken in India, and Bollywood films tend to be in the primary national language, Hindi. Tollywood, on the other hand, is centralized in southern India and is largely filmed in Hyderabad. It gets its name because the films are spoken in Telegu. Fun fact, though: The RRR we all watched on Netflix is actually the Hindi dub.

RRR is a delightful watch, but international viewers may not be as well versed in the weirdness of its politics, which had me going “hmmm” towards the end. Yes, that’s complicated, but there’s still a hell of a lot to enjoy about the film. If nothing else, I hope RRR‘s success and its shiny new Oscar win opens up a new audience to Bollywood and Tollywood (and all the other excellent forms of Indian cinema). There’s a wide trove of absolute treasures to enjoy. So, allow me to close out with a completely unrelated song from a completely unrelated Bollywood film. The only connection here is the iconic use of clothing.

(featured image: DVV Entertainment)

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Kirsten (she/her) is a musician, audio person, writer, and nerd. When not talking about One Piece or Zelda (among other anime and games), she's finding surprising ways to play the guitar.