Oscars History Was Made With 'Naatu Naatu' Performance... But It Also Somewhat Failed South Asian Audiences

The 'Naatu Naatu' Oscars 2023 performance was a massive moment, but why weren't any South Asian dancers on stage?

If you go to Draw Your Box's Instagram account, you'll see a video of myself dancing away as Telugu song 'Naatu Naatu' was performed at the 2023 Oscars. As a South Asian, I couldn't be more proud to see an Indian song spotlighted in this way at the Academy Awards  – and even more so because it was a South Indian song.

In a world that has long viewed Indian cinema as just Bollywood, South Indians are getting the global recognition they deserve but rarely receive.

"Can't believe this! History is happening," one of my Telugu friends messaged me after the performance.

She's right. This onstage display of Indian music and dance, combined with the 'RRR' song winning the Best Original Song category on the same night, is monumental in recognising South Indian talent and helping brown people feel seen. The award victory marked India's first ever Oscar in the Best Song category, and that's definitely worth celebrating.

Hours since the awards show wrapped up, I'm still overjoyed by what I saw at the Oscars. However, it's important we recognise that there was a missed opportunity to further showcase South Asian talent during the performance. While 'Naatu Naatu' original singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava took to the stage, the two lead dancers and background dancing ensemble aren't believed to be South Asian.

With the film 'RRR' driven by an anti-colonial storyline, the lack of brown dancers made complete sense as it aligned with what we saw in the dance sequence in the actual film. However, actors Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr's counterparts in the on-stage performance weren't South Asian, and many people on social media aren't happy about it.

According to Indiewire, the Oscars chose to work with non-Indian choreographers Napoleon & Tabitha Dumo in putting together this performance, and those choreographers chose to work with dancers they already had prior experience with.

L.A.-based choreographer Joya Kazi shared a telling post on Instagram over the weekend, revealing her agents submitted her as a potential choreographer. While she didn't think anything of not landing the gig, she questioned the lack of South Asian representation after seeing a dancer post a behind-the-scenes rehearsal video before the awards show.

"This is a phenomenal milestone for South Indian cinema and Desis worldwide are so proud," she wrote on her social media platform.

"My agents submitted me for this and I was told that the choreographers want to work with dancers they already know. Valid. I get it. I also don’t need to book everything under the sun, because there are plenty of talented South Asian dancers and choreographers to choose from. I’m just wondering why I don’t see people of the culture in the room in these rehearsal videos. 

"Are we going to see even one South Asian dancer on that stage? Why isn’t that cast filled with brown bodies? Don’t get me wrong, I know just as much as you know at this point, and there very well could be South Asian dancers and I just don’t know it yet…but…respectfully… where is the representasian?"

When you have incredible American and Canadian dancers taking part in nationwide championships or dancers like Eshani Patel and Anisha Kay (while not South Indian), is it so hard in a country of talent to find South Asians to take the lead?

The 'Naatu Naatu' performance was undeniably a massive moment and one we can celebrate. But it's also a reminder of how Hollywood can better work towards improving the representation of South Asian talent so that we truly feel seen and heard.