After controversial ‘Naatu Naatu’ performance at the Oscars, South Asian dancers are fighting for representation

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Nearly a week after the Oscars, the hurt and disappointment a missed opportunity still weigh heavily on the minds of some South Asian American dancers who are determined to make sure it never happens again.

Many in the South Asian dance community were dismayed by the surprising lack South Asian representation “Naatu Naatu” performance at Sunday’s Academy Awards, While singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kala Bhairav ​​were on hand to perform their hit tune from Tollywood smash “RRR” – which created history for India that night by winning Best Original Song – they were joined on stage by a single dancer South Asian heritage. did not happen.

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How could the Academy get it so wrong? Especially when, 14 years ago, he nailed it at the 2009 Oscars as part a widely celebrated four-minute medley with a rendition of AR Rahman’s “Slumdog Millionaire” hit “Jai Ho.”

,[The 2009 Oscars] There were Indian singers and it was a multi-racial group dancers and musicians,” explains Shilpa Dave, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, who specializes in the history of race and gender representation in the media. “They were really showing that music has this global power. So people didn’t have an issue at the time.

While Sunday night proved to be a historic turning point for India, which also won the best documentary award for Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga’s “The Elephant Whispers”, the glaring absence South Asian artistes on Hollywood’s biggest stage like dancers was the “last straw”. Achinta S McDaniel.

“Some people say, ‘Be happy with what we’ve got,’ and that’s part the [the problem] “—this idea of ​​just accepting the scraps you throw away,” explains McDaniel, founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Blue 13 Dance Company. Diversity, “Just be happy an Indian song was nominated [and won], Don’t get mad about the overt racism visible in the performance.

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McDaniel’s agent put her forward to serve as an associate consultant for the performance two weeks before the Oscars, but her rep was told that AMPAS-selected choreographers Tabitha and Napoleone D’Umo – the Los Angeles-based duo were hired by NappyTabs. Known as – already hired his team. ,Diversity understands that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshit was advising on the Oscar performance, but Nappytabs was the primary choreographer.)

,[Equity is] It’s a huge part my interest, and it’s inspired many of my colleagues in the field,” McDaniel says. “Enough is enough. this is the last straw.”

McDaniel is hosting a Zoom event Saturday for South Asians in the dance community to unpack the events the Oscars and plan ahead for the South Asian Summit this summer — an event she is hosting with the national organization Dance/ USA hopes to stage with the annual convention.

“It really lit a fire,” says McDaniel. “So many people are joining this Zoom so we can start to make a real change. It’s long past time we were silent.

Vikas Arun, a New York-based dancer and teacher specializing in Western and Indian rhythmic and percussive dance forms, explains Diversity There have also been talks this week about creating a cross-functional advocacy group that could rally on behalf South Asian entertainers in moments of crisis.

“When faced with other minorities [incidents like this], they have organizations they can go to,” says Arun. “Our community is poor in organized advocacy because we are so few. We are fighting our battles individually, and there is no central organization. It’s also disappointing for new South Asian actors who are not on our level [and don’t have the connections],

Dave, who wrote the 2013 book “Indian Accents: Brown Voices and Racial Performance in American Television and Film,” agrees the “next step” in the conversation is to interrogate South Asian entertainers by advocating.

“It’s not only about thinking about representation and advocacy for directors, writers and actors, but artists at large as well,” says Dave. “I think dancers have been left out of this conversation. So when we’re looking at casting agencies and talent agencies, [we need to ask] Where are the agents representing the establishment?

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According to another talent like professional dancer and choreographer Ramita Ravi, whose agent put her forward for an Academy Award, situations like this Oscar performance “unfortunately happen all the time.”

“I can name a few personal experiences that followed the same thread,” she explains. Diversity on email. “But the beauty of our coming together is that supporting each other and building a collective, inclusive voice can make a difference in a way that doesn’t happen in the future.”

Interestingly, even after five days have passed since the awards, there remains some confusion as to how the production came about in the first place. It was initially thought that “RRR” actors NTR Jr and Ram Charan would perform the dance themselves, but Oscar producer Raj Kapoor explained in an AMPAS blog that the actors declined, as they were too comfortable doing so due to time constraints. were not As such, their characters were performed on stage by Lebanese-Canadian dancer Billy Mustafa and American dancer Jason Glover, who was mistakenly assumed by many to be of South Asian heritage.

a formula tells Diversity that AMPAS then intended to fly 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 many dancers.)

While a source close to the production says AMPAS tried to ensure that India’s original team was looped in on every creative decision – a team that included the film’s public relations team, Karthikeya Rajamouli, son of SS Rajamouli, “RRR”. The outrage over the resulting performance also highlights what representation means for citizens versus those who are part of the diaspora.

Ravi explains, “For many South Asian Americans in the US, we were born and raised in America and feel an enormous sense of belonging here.” “For other generations, and especially for immigrants or those living in India, it is a different equation – they may be excited to be invited to the table, whereas the diaspora may want to be a part of building the table. So, I think the idea of ​​representation sits very differently across the diaspora.

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Dave says: “The Indian cinema industry is the biggest in the world, and when you come from that background and milieu, you don’t see the injustices that happen in the diaspora and in Hollywood. Therefore [the ‘RRR’ team] Was thrilled to win the Oscar – and rightly so.

But for the diaspora, representation matters a lot, says Dave.

“We’re seeing disparities across America’s core industries, and what this does is reinforce the idea that South Asians are foreigners who live on the other side of the world, and they’re not part of the culture and history of Hollywood and the United States.” that’s not true. South Asians are in Hollywood, and for years they’ve been forced into roles that were marginal or forced to hide [altogether], So, to try and do less, in an age in which we’ve seen so much progress – it’s problematic.

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