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From viral dance hit to Oscar winner: 'Naatu Naatu'

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
March 13, 2023

The explosively energetic Telugu song from the film "RRR" is a global smash hit and has become the first song from a Tollywood film to win an Academy Award.

Dancers perform 'Naatu Naatu' from 'RRR' onstage during the 95th Annual Academy Awards.
Dancers perform 'Naatu Naatu' from 'RRR' onstage during the 95th Annual Academy Awards Image: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The explosive performance of "Naatu Naatu" was one of the highlights of Sunday's Oscars ceremony, with singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava recreating the hit song of the Indian blockbuster "RRR" on stage, accompanied by a troupe of more than 20 dancers.

Two Indian men in Western clothes stand in front of a magnificent palace, surrounded by English ladies dressed in elaborate gowns and English gentlemen in tailcoats. The scene represents a face-off between English colonialists and their Indian subjects in early 20th-century India, which was under control of the British Crown.

"Not salsa, not flamenco. Do you know Naatu?" the Indians ask, moving into a jig, kicking up dust and breaking all the rules of conventional dancing. The dance ends up becoming a contest between the Indians and the British — all the Englishwomen happily jive to "Naatu" to the horror of their male compatriots.

Beating out US megastars Lady Gaga and Rihanna, "Naatu Naatu" went on to win best original song at Sunday's Academy Awards and became the first-ever song from an Indian film to win the prize.

Indian film 'RRR' gains worldwide success for song 'Naatu Naatu'

Not Bollywood, but Tollywood

At the Oscars ceremony, host Jimmy Kimmel incorrectly stated in his opening monologue that "RRR" was a "Bollywood movie." Fans of the film were quick to correct him on social media: The hit film isn't a product of Bollywood, which has become a blanket term to refer to the Indian film industry, but Tollywood.

"RRR" is not a Hindi film produced at studios in Mumbai, formerly Bombay (Bollywood = Bombay + Hollywood), but a Telugu movie made in southern India (Telugu + Hollywood = Tollywood).

In Telugu, a language spoken by more than 80 million people in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, "Naatu" means "local," referring in this context to the regional dance style competing against English standards. 

The title of the movie, "RRR," stands for "Rise, Roar, Revolt" and tells the story of Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, two figures from the 1920s who fought for India's independence from British rule.

Before winning an Oscar, the composition by M.M. Keeravani also picked up the Golden Globe for best original song and also took home the same prize at the Critics Choice Awards in Los Angeles.

The awards and international recognition have multiplied the song's viral success, with users on TikTok replicating the song's trademark dance moves. The Korean embassy in New Delhi posted a version of its staff performing the dance and the German embassy followed suit, with its staff jiving to the number at New Delhi's Chandni Chowk square. The German ambassador to India, Philipp Ackermann, joined in.


What's so special about 'Naatu Naatu'?

The song has fantastic energy. Founder of Indian PR company Cinejosh Parvathaneni Rambabu writes on his website that the song's "dusty dance and foot-stomping music" make it attractive to its audience, as does the fact that it is a metaphor for defeating the British.

Variety magazine's Chris Willman describes "Naatu Naatu" as "a dance sequence that is being almost universally recognized as one of the most exhilarating scenes anyone experienced at the movies in 2022, globally." He called the song a "movie-music adrenaline blast" and argues that its energy may likely further the song's chances of outperforming the competition at the Oscars.

Lyricist Chandrabose (r) and composer M. M. Keeravani accept the best original song Oscar.
Lyricist Chandrabose (r) and composer M. M. Keeravani accept the best original song Oscar for 'Naatu Naatu'Image: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The production of "RRR" cost an estimated €62 million (approximately $68 million), making it the most expensive movie ever made in India. Shooting just the song cost €1.7 million.

One reason why it was so expensive was that it was filmed in front of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's residence in Kyiv, the Mariinskyi Palace, around six months before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Speaking to Indian news website The News Minute, T.M. Natarajan, the location manager for "RRR," said they had to negotiate with Kyiv officials, including Mayor Vitali Klitschko, to get permission for filming. Ukrainian officials agreed after learning of the Telugu director S.S. Rajamouli's reputation and the possibility that the film could eventually become very popular. Filming eventually took 17 days and the support of 1,000 crew members.

The light-blue facade of Kyiv's Baroque Mariinskyi Palace
Kyiv's Baroque Mariinskyi Palace served as the backdrop for 'Naatu Naatu'Image: Matt Parry/robertharding/IMAGO

Even before winning the Oscar, director S.S. Rajamouli seemed to be happy with the results, saying he made the movie for viewers and not for critical acclaim. Since its release in March last year, it has earned more than $160 million worldwide at the box office.

Another Indian Oscar win

There were other Indian works among the Oscar nominees.

Kartiki Gonsalves' "The Elephant Whisperers," about an elderly couple looking after abandoned elephant calves, won the Academy Award in the best short documentary category.

Nominated for best documentary feature, "All That Breathes" by director Shaunak Sen, lost to "Navalyy." Sen's film documents the work of two brothers in New Delhi who run a hospital to save black kites, a commonly seen bird. 

India's official entry to the Oscars in the international feature film category, director Pan Nalin's "Last Film Show," tells the story of a young boy's love affair with cinema and the play of light. However, it didn't make the final list of Oscar nominees.

Edited by: Cristina Burack

Updated on March 13, 2023: This article was first written in January 2023 to discuss films short-listed for the Oscars and was updated following the Academy Awards ceremony.

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.