Nearly a week after the Oscars, the hurt and disappointment of the missed opportunity still weighs heavily on the minds of some South Asian American dancers, who are working to make sure it never happens again.
Many in the South Asian dance community were shocked by the stunning lack of South Asian representation in the “Naatu Naatu” performance at Sunday’s Academy Awards. Singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava were there to perform their hit from the Tollywood smash ‘RRR’ – which made Indian history that night by winning Best Original Song – with not a single South Asian dancer on stage with them.
How could the Academy get this so wrong? Especially when, 14 years ago, they nailed it on the set of AR Rahman’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ hit ‘Jai Ho’ at the 2009 Oscars as part of a widely celebrated four-minute medley.
“[The 2009 Oscars] there were Indian singers and it was a multiracial group of dancers and musicians,” says 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 problems 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 happy with what we’ve got,’ and that’s part of it [the problem] — this idea that you’re only accepting the scraps that are thrown at you,” says McDaniel, founder and artistic director of Los Angeles-based Blue13 Dance Company. Variety. “Just be happy that an Indian song was nominated [and won]. Don’t be angry about the over-the-top racism on the show.”
McDaniel’s agent pitched her to serve as an associate consultant on the show two weeks before the Oscars, but her rep was told that AMPAS-selected choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo—the Los Angeles-based NappyTabs duo—were already on board. hired their team. (Variety (understand that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith advised on the Oscar performance, but NappyTabs were the main choreographers.)
“[Equity is] a big part of what I’m interested in, and this has sparked a lot of my colleagues in the industry,” says McDaniel. “Now that’s enough. This is the last straw.”
McDaniel is hosting a Zoom event Saturday for members of the South Asian dance community to decompress from the Oscars and plan the upcoming South Asia Summit this summer — an event she hopes to hold in conjunction with the national Dance/USA annual conference.
“This really lit the fire,” says McDaniel. “So many people are joining this Zoom so we can start to make a real difference. We’ve been silent for too long.”
Vikas Arun, a New York-based dancer and teacher specializing in Western and Indian rhythmic and percussive dance forms, says Variety There has also been discussion this week about building a multidisciplinary advocacy group that can rally on behalf of South Asian entertainers in times of crisis.
“When other minorities meet [incidents like this], they have organizations they can go to,” says Arun. “Our community is bad at organized advocacy because there are so few of us. We individually fight our own battle and have no central organization. It also makes it frustrating for new South Asian artists who are not at our level [and don’t have the connections].”
Davé, author of 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 explore the advocacy of South Asian entertainers.
“It’s about thinking about representation and influence, not only for directors, writers and actors, but also for performers on a larger scale,” says Davé. “I think dancers have been left out of this conversation. So when we look at casting agencies and talent agencies, [we need to ask] where are the agents who support the establishment?”
According to talents like Ramita Ravi, another professional dancer and choreographer whose agent set her up for an Oscar, situations like the Oscar show “unfortunately happen all the time.”
“I can name a handful of personal experiences that follow the same thread,” he says Variety by e-mail. “But the beauty of us coming together is that supporting each other and building a collective, inclusive voice can make a difference that won’t happen in the future.”
Interestingly, five days after the awards ceremony, there is still some confusion about how the production happened in the first place. Initially, it was thought that “RRR” actors NTR Jr. and Ram Charan would perform the dance themselves, but Academy Awards producer Raj Kapoor told the AMPAS blog that the cast refused because they were not happy with it due to time constraints. As such, their characters were represented on stage by Lebanese-Canadian dancer Billy Mustapha and American dancer Jason Glover, who many mistakenly believed to be of South Asian heritage.
One source says Variety that AMPAS then planned to fly over dancers from India to support the show, but their work visas fell through, prompting NappyTabs to hire their own dancers. (Several dancers have disputed this claim.)
While AMPAS tried to ensure that the original Indian team was involved in every creative decision — a team that included the film’s PR team, SS Rajamouli’s son Karthikeya Rajamouli, “RRR” producers and composer MM Keeravaani — angered by the resulting performance, according to a source close to the production. also highlights the difference in what representation means to citizens versus those in the diaspora.
“For many South Asian Americans in the United States, we are born and raised in America and feel a great sense of belonging here,” Ravi explains. “For other generations and especially immigrants or people living in India, it’s a slightly different equation – they might be excited to be invited to the table, whereas the diaspora wants to be a part of building the table. In this way, I believe that the idea of representation is very different across the diaspora.
Davé adds, “India’s film industry is the biggest in the world and when you come from that background and environment, you don’t see the injustice that happens in the diaspora and in Hollywood. So [the ‘RRR’ team] was thrilled to win the Oscar — and rightfully so.”
But representatives in the diaspora are of great importance, says Davé.
“We see inequality in mainstream American industries and it reinforces the idea that South Asians are foreigners living on the other side of the world and not part of the culture and history of Hollywood and the US, which is not true. South Asians have been in Hollywood and they are forced for many years into roles that have been small or forced into hiding [altogether]. So trying to reduce that in an era where we’ve seen so many leaps and bounds is problematic.”