COLUMN/ THE HOT POTATO
Over the next few days, many Indians will be busy googling up Naatu Naatu and watching the item number with renewed interest because what many see as the western world’s highest cultural office – the Oscar factory – has given the Indian song a stamp of approval.
It’s important to break the bad news to delirious Indian fans: this song-and-dance piece from the Telugu flick RRR reeks of sheer racism, insulting visuals, and a colonial hangover. It’s perhaps these very ingredients that charmed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into recognising Naatu Naatu as the best original song at the 2023 Oscars in Los Angeles on Sunday night.
Naatu Naatu isn’t just another peppy Indian movie song with colourful picturisation. If it were so, it perhaps wouldn’t have fetched an Oscar.
Instead, the item number shows a demeaning and dystopian colonial setting in which a couple of socially misfitting, dark-skinned Indian men are seen desperately trying to impress civilised British men and women at an all-white English cocktail party.
The song is less than five minutes long. But its storyline is appalling enough to write an entire thesis on how West-loving Indians still enjoy narratives hailing the ages-old racist theme of civilised westerners trying to discipline uncivilised Indians.
Let’s first revisit the song’s stereotypical storyline.
Two funny guys from India walk into a fancy British party. One of them is eyeing a British woman. So, to impress everyone at the party, the two guys taunt the snobbish British men and break into an energetic dance. The white men find it annoying. One of them rudely yells at the Indians, saying he’s “had enough of the nonsense”, and orders them to leave – “You two — out!”
At that moment, a British woman intervenes and calms the angry white man down. She then teasingly tugs at both the Indian guys’ attire, and playfully tells them to resume dancing. Their spirits lifted by the white woman’s friendly but patronising gesture, the Indian duo starts dancing, only to be again told by the angry Englishman that it’s “disgusting” and “filth”.
Shallow as the storyline sounds, the Indian men continue to dance, later joined by the angry British men and the charmed Englishwomen. The Indian duo emerges on top as better dancers than the Britishers, eventually impressing the higher mortals – the disciplined British – with their rustic and native (“Naatu”) performance.
For any self-respecting Indian, this kind of narrative, be it a high-quality artwork or a cheap stunt, is a reminder of the disgraceful days of colonial India. The song’s visually indigestible setting strongly brings back memories of when the western invaders occupied the Indian subcontinent from 1499 to 1947.
Essentially, the song bluntly promotes the idea that sulking, marginalised none-white people should continue trying to impress the more advanced white race to win them over.
THE UKRAINE FACTOR
There’s another even more compelling reason why this song is the toast of the western world. It was filmed on the lawns of the Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, the official residence of the country’s president, just a few months before the Russian invasion began.
The math is a no-brainer. Since America is on Ukraine’s side, the Oscar ceremony perhaps felt tempted to give mileage to a song whose picturisation shows war-rattled Ukraine as a stark reminder of ongoing Russian aggression in that country.
So, there you go. With the geopolitical factor added to the colonial hangover narrative, the Oscar certification was only waiting to happen for Naatu Naatu. Notice the roll of honour for the RRR item number in the build-up to the Oscars. Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globes, Hollywood Critics Association – all are best original song trophies, and all of them are American. And all of them were showered upon the makers of Naatu Naatu while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was underway.
The Oscars have a dark legacy of often awarding artwork along geopolitical lines or to push certain western narratives. Take the latest winner of the best picture award, Everything Everywhere All at Once. The racy film is unlikely to tickle the palate of connoisseurs. But it won the biggest prize perhaps because its fantasy storyline promotes the new concept of metaverses, which the Big Tech industry is trying to familiarise the world with.
There are many other examples of agenda-laced best picture wins at the Oscars, such as Argo. It paints a misleading picture of innocent Americans constantly suffering at the hands of demonic Iranians, and portrays the pleasant city of Tehran as hostile towards all outsiders.
Then take The Hurt Locker for example. The movie glorifies the lives of western soldiers serving in interventionist foreign missions. There’s Slumdog Millionaire, too, to cite as an example. It borders on selling poverty porn, misery porn, and chaos porn in India – traditionally a favourite subject among many westerners. There’s The Departed, which glorifies gun-toting culture among hot-headed, trigger-happy cops on the streets of America. Or take Schindler’s List, for example. The film flows with only that narrative of Nazi Germany that the West wants the world to follow.
At the end of the day, one has to understand that Hollywood isn’t an isolated arena in the entertainment industry. American films and awards are too influential for the American Empire not to use them as propaganda tools.
It is an important cog in the wheel for the US imperialist machine and its bid to fan its one-sided agenda. Which is precisely why songs such as Naatu Naatu and films such as Schindler’s List, which are aligned with western narratives, are given special treatment.
The best way to get a sense of why it’s wrong for Indians to go ecstatic over Naatu Naatu’s Oscar factory certification is to imagine the reverse scenario. What if India awards a music video that shows Indians belittling Americans and US culture along racist lines? Would people in the US celebrate that song’s certification by India? Or will they be outraged?
Think about it before dashing off to the Oscar after-parties.
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