South Asian dancers are fighting for representation after the Oscars’ controversial ‘Naatu Naatu’ performance

Nearly a week after the Oscars, the pain and disappointment of a missed opportunity still weighs heavily on the minds of some South Asian American dancers as they set out to make sure it never happens again.

Many in the South Asian dance community were dismayed at the astonishing lack of South Asian representation in the performance “Naatu Naatu” at the Oscars on Sunday. While singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava were on hand to perform their hit from the Tollywood hit ‘RRR’ – which made history for India that night by winning Best Original Song – she was beaten by none on stage accompanied by dancers of South Asian origin.

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How could the Academy get it so wrong? Especially when they hit the nail on the head 14 years ago by directing AR Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire hit “Jai Ho” at the 2009 Oscars as part of an acclaimed four-minute medley.

“[The 2009 Oscars] had Indian singers and it was a mixed-race group of dancers and musicians,” explains Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, who specializes in the history of representations of race and gender in the media. “They really showed that music has this global power. That’s why people didn’t have a problem back then.”

While Sunday night marked a historic turning point for India, which also won Best Documentary for Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga’s The Elephant Whisperers, the glaring absence of South Asian performers from Hollywood’s biggest stage was the “last straw” for dancers like Achinta S .McDaniel.

“Some people say, ‘Just be content with what we have,’ and that’s part of it [the problem] — this idea of ​​just accepting the scraps that are thrown at you,” says McDaniel, founder and artistic director of Los Angeles-based Blue13 Dance Company diversity. “Just be glad an Indian song got nominated [and won]. Don’t be mad at the overwhelming racism that was displayed in the performance.”

McDaniel’s agent suggested she serve as assistant consultant for the performance two weeks before the Academy Awards, but her representative was told that AMPAS-chosen choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo — the Los Angeles-based duo known as NappyTabs — already done so had hired their team. (diversity understands that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith consulted on the Oscars performance, but that NappyTabs were the main choreographers.)

“[Equity is] a big part of what I’m interested in, and that’s what inspired so many of my colleagues in the field,” says McDaniel. “It’s enough now. That’s the last straw.”

McDaniel is hosting a Zoom for South Asians in the dance community on Saturday to unpack the events of the Oscars and plan for a South Asian summit this summer — an event she hopes to host in conjunction with the national organization Dance/USA’s annual conference.

“That really started a fire,” says McDaniel. “So many people are joining this zoom so we can start making an actual change. It’s been too long since we’ve been silent.”

Vikas Arun, a New York-based dancer and teacher specializing in Western and Indian rhythmic and percussive dance forms, narrates diversity There were also talks this week about building a cross-functional advocacy group that can advocate for South Asian entertainers in times of crisis.

“When other minorities are confronted [incidents like this], they have organizations to go to,” says Arun. “Our community is poor in organized advocacy because we are so few. We individually fight our own battle and there is no central organization. It also makes it frustrating for new South Asian artists who aren’t at our level [and don’t have the connections].”

Davé, who authored the 2013 book Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, agrees that the “next step” in the conversation is to further challenge the endorsement of South Asian entertainers.

“It’s about thinking not only about the representation and advocacy of directors, writers and actors, but also of artists on a larger scale,” says Davé. “I think dancers have been left out of this conversation. So if we look at casting agencies and talent agencies, [we need to ask] Where are the pro-establishment agents?”

According to talents like Ramita Ravi, another professional dancer and choreographer whose agent suggested her for the Academy Awards, situations like the Academy Awards “happily happen all the time.”

“I can cite a handful of personal experiences that follow the same thread,” she says diversity via email. “But the beauty of our coming together is that supporting each other and building a collective, inclusive voice can make a difference so that this doesn’t happen in the future.”

Interestingly, five days after the awards shows, there’s still some confusion as to how the production went down in the first place. It was originally thought that “RRR” actors NTR Jr. and Ram Charan would perform the dance themselves, but Academy Award producer Raj Kapoor explained in an AMPAS blog that the actors declined because they were concerned with the time constraint didn’t feel good. As such, her characters were represented on stage by Lebanese-Canadian dancer Billy Mustapha and American dancer Jason Glover, many of whom wrongly assumed to be of South Asian descent.

A source tells diversity that AMPAS then wanted to fly in dancers from India to support the performance, but their work visas failed, prompting NappyTabs to hire their own dancers. (This claim has been disputed by several dancers.)

While a source close to the production says AMPAS tried to ensure that the original team from India was involved in every creative decision – a team that included the film’s PR team, SS Rajamouli’s son Karthikeya Rajamouli, “RRR.” -Producer and composer MM Keeravaani belonged – Outrage at the resulting achievement also underscores the divergence in what representation means for local people versus those who are part of a diaspora.

“For many South Asian Americans in the US, we were born and raised in America and feel very much like we belong here,” Ravi explains. “For other generations, and particularly for immigrants or people living in India, it’s a slightly different equation – they may be happy to be invited to the table, while the diaspora may want to be part of setting the table.” In that respect, I think the idea of ​​representation in the diaspora is very different.”

Davé adds: “The Indian cinema industry is the largest in the world and coming from that background and environment you don’t see the injustices happening in the diaspora and in Hollywood. So [the ‘RRR’ team] was thrilled to win an Oscar – and rightly so.”

But for those in the diaspora, representation is very important, says Davé.

“We see the injustice in America’s major industries and that reinforces the idea that South Asians are foreigners living on the other side of the world and they are not a part of the culture and history of Hollywood and the United States, which is not true. South Asians have been in Hollywood and have been coerced into tiny roles or forced into hiding for many years [altogether]. Trying to mitigate that at a time when we’ve seen so much progress is problematic.”

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