One of the most common byproducts of listening to music is dancing, or just the need to dance.
There are those songs, however, that implore you to shake a tail feather, do a jig, cut a rug, scrub the floor or just get down and boogie.
That’s the category that “Naatu Naatu” falls into. It was written by Chandrabose with music from M.M. Keeravaani and the Oscar-winning song is the energy behind an epic dance battle in the movie “RRR.”
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
“RRR” is the most expensive Indian movie to date. It tells the story of Bheem (played by N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), the local hero of a remote village in India who is trying to recover a young girl taken from the village to Delhi by the British occupiers. Rama (played by Ram Charan) is a police officer trying to climb the ranks in the British occupying force as an Indian man.
Typical dance numbers and over-the-top stunts are a staple of this genre of movie and “RRR” is a prototype. “Naatu Naatu’s” dance battle comes as the British high officers are trying to devalue the local traditions but as usual there are layers here.
There is an inclination to call all movies that come out of India Bollywood movies. The Bollywood genre is a specific group of films and generally based out of Mumbai on the west coast of India. There are a few other hubs of Hindi cinema and “RRR” is an example of that.
The song and movie is in Telugu, one of the many languages and dialects spoken in the country. The film’s location is also in Delhi as opposed to Mumbai, which is another major distinction.
THE BRITISH OCCUPATION
The foundation of the story of “RRR” is the British occupation of India. The British were an occupying force in India for centuries.
More specifically, the East India Company set up a governance to fortify their trade efforts. In 1957, Indians stage a revolution and begin to forge towards independence.
DANCE AND THE ERASURE OF CULTURE
One of the most nefarious tenets of colonization is the erasure of the local culture. This is the scene that is played out in the song “Naatu Naatu.” The British high society ball that Rama and Bheem are invited to is a recreation of European rituals and culture.
Rama and Bheem are out of their depth here and their response is to challenge these high society members to a traditional Indian dance. Initially, they scoff at the “unsophisticated” dance but when the crowd starts to catch on, their pride forces them into a dance battle.
This is a phenomenon that a lot of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) encounter when they bring their culture to a place that may be unaccustomed to it. It’s ridiculed at first, and then as it grows in popularity, the dominant culture wants to be the one controlling the culture and a battle ensues.
Hip Hop with its roots in Jamaican dance hall culture was vilified for years before it was accepted and glorified in the United States.
JOY, PURE AND SIMPLE IN DANCE
Rheem and Rama are asked whether they can waltz or tango and their faces show that they find them boring. To them, dance needs to be an expression of unbridled joy. Why dance if your frowning, especially at a party?
The “Naatu Naatu” dance is just that: an explosion of joy. This much joy in the face of struggle and strife is a hallmark of oppressed people and often it confuses oppressors. How can such joy exist in a people under the thumb of colonization? How can enslaved people sing and celebrate in the shadow of the next whipping? How can an immigrant people sing and dance to songs of hope and festivity while living in squalor in the left-over parts of a city?
Culture does that. Heritage and tradition do that. A love for who you are and where you come from is what keeps the fire in oppressed people and those living in foreign lands, regardless of the reason for leaving.
When we listen to “Naatu Naatu,” even if we don’t speak the language, you can feel the joy of story in the song and the scene in the movie is full of energy and love for India. It’s great that the song won an Academy Award for Best Original Song because it puts the movie on new viewers’ radars.
While “RRR” should have been nominated for some other categories as well, see it for yourself and tell people whether you agree.
“RRR” can be streamed on Netflix.