The Indian Naatu Naatu – the song and dance highlight of SS Rajamouli’s blockbuster RRR – made history on Monday morning by winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song in a Motion Film at the 95th Annual Academy Awards.
The first Indian song and the second Indian-language song to win the coveted trophy, the cross-cultural hit with actors Ram Charan and NTR Rao Junior at the helm and infusing it with their spirited dance moves, triumphed over a plethora of brilliant pieces from some of the world’s most famous musicians.
Famous American songwriter and 14-time Oscar winner Diane Warren’s Applause, pop icon Rihanna’s anthem-like Raise Me Up from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the highest achievement of pop music. Hold my hand from Top Gun: Maverick by Lady Gaga, This is life from the most nominated Everything Everywhere All at Once by first-time Oscar nominee and Japanese American singer-songwriter Mitski, and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne were all nominated for best song alongside lyricist Chandrabose and composer MM Keeravani.
Clad with a bottle green kurta and pants, the song’s composer, MM Keeravani, was obviously ecstatic as he carried the golden knight and praised his cousin and filmmaker Rajamouli through the Carpenters’ song, On top of the world, for his starring role. “I grew up listening to The Carpenters, and here I am with the Oscars,” Keeravani said before breaking into a parody of the famous song, “There was only one wish on my mind, so was Rajamouli’s and my family’s, RRR has to win, pride of every Indian and must put me on top of the world,” Keeravani sang as actor Deepika Padukone, looking stunning in a black Louis Vuitton gown, cried.
Just minutes before, the song’s vocalists Rahul Sipligunj and Kala Bhairava (also Keeravani’s son) were on the Dolby Theatre’s historic stage for a two-and-a-half-minute performance as a highly skilled group of dancers, two of whom were dressed as RRR’s Ram Charan and NTR Rao Junior. When the two singers lip-synced a specially recorded, shorter sequence for the Academy Awards, the dancers created a ruckus on Hollywood Boulevard. The choreography was nearly identical to the original, with a quick tempo and excellent execution for a live performance. In Telugu songs, it is uncommon to witness Hollywood celebrities shaking a leg to the beat of a parai (frame drum). Naatu Naatu started the celebration. Just like it has over the past year and a half, with the globe dancing in theatre aisles and TikTok and Instagram videos filled with praise for the hook step.
Naatu Naatu (which translates to “Naacho naacho” in Hindi) has become the first Indian cinema song to win the coveted honour and carry home the renowned golden knight. The Oscar won by AR Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire in the same category was for a British film directed by Danny Boyle and partially based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swaroop that was filmed in India. In 2008, however, Rahman had two of the three nominations (Jai ho and O saaya), with the other nomination going to the song Down to earth from Wall E by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman. In the same year, the song received a Grammy in the same category. Critics may have deemed Jai Ho a better song, but Naatu Naatu has fought off strong opposition to give India its moment in the global spotlight.
The victory for the Telugu number, shot for 15 days in front of the Ukranian Parliament and Meriinskyi Palace – the official residence of the President of Ukraine, besides putting India and Telugu cinema under the spotlight and giving Keeravani credit for his 25-year-career, portends something more significant – it has managed to buck the usual trends and break through a glass ceiling that had previously seemed insurmountable: a simple-enough number has had many and most
This honour would be important, said P Unnikrishnan, a Carnatic vocalist and National Award-winning playback singer from Chennai who has collaborated with Keeravani on a number of tracks, in an interview with The Indian Express.
The song’s origins may be traced back to Kuthu, a type of percussion-based street folk dance and music popular in Tamil and Telugu films. Historically, the mostly instrumental, layered music, frequently played on a parai and nadaswaram, would accompany wedding and funeral processions and was performed by a number of marginalised populations.
Once the South industries adopted and added vocals to this technique, there was an influx of similar songs, particularly in Tamil and Telugu films. “If you examine a large number of Tamil and Telugu films, you will find a large number of songs with similar tempos. This is likely something West did not observe previously. In the case of Naatu Naatu, it’s the mix of the picturisation, wonderful dancing, catchy music, and marketing – when everything comes together so flawlessly, that’s what gives it its thrill,” said Unnikrishnan.
The 20 songs used in the 1997 Telugu film Annamayya, on the 15th-century musician Annamacharya, helped solidify his status in the music business. Keervani received the National Award and several state honours for the same work. This was also the time when Rahman was establishing himself in the Tamil film business and composing hit songs for Hindi films. Being eclipsed by the Rahman wave was simple for the reticent Keeravani. Rajamouli and his films Baahubali and RRR altered that for Keeravani, who is now famous for his background music, particularly for Rajamouli’s action scenes.
Keervani, also known as MM Kreem in the Hindi cinema business, is frequently associated with gentle love songs, such as Gali mein aaj chand nikla in Mahesh Bhatt’s Zakhm (1998), and those in Sur (2002) and Jism (2003) and Sudhir Mishra’s Iss Raat ki Subah Nahi (1996). Naatu naatu is one of his few powerful compositions. Rajamouli described to choreographer Prem Rakshith in a Vanity Fair video the song and dance scene that is to occur when a Britisher abuses two Indians by calling them “brown buggers.” “I told him that sure, for the audience, this is a song, it’s entertaining, and they’re dancing, but for the plot, it’s actually a fight scene… you’re experiencing the emotion of a battle.”