The 95th Academy Awards was a celebration of Asian success in Hollywood. With a grand sweep of awards claimed by “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, the first South Indian, Telugu-language, win for “Naatu Naatu” as Best Original Song, and the first two women from India to win Best Documentary short for “The Elephant Whisperer”, it seems like Asians in Hollywood are finally being recognized for their achievements in the film industry. However, in the midst of all this success there are a few moments which make me believe that the fight to be seen equally in American media is quite far from being over.
Back in 2015, Black Twitter was in a uproar over the lack of diversity at the Oscars, creating a grassroots movement behind the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The controversy pushed The Academy to set new standards of eligibility that required Best Picture nominees to have diversity on their sets. Yet even with those commitments, the Oscars failed the South Asian community in a big way.
“Naatu Naatu”, the award winning song from the movie “RRR”, had a special performance during the award show and was choreographed by Prem Rakshith – the original movie choreographer – and Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, the duo also known as Nappytabs. Two things became very apparent to me while watching the performance, the lack of Indian dancers on the stage and the fact that the two principal dancers were not Indian nor South Asian, but “brown passing”. As a dancer in the industry, I recognize that these types of gigs are once in a lifetime opportunities, which are impossible to turn down. So my critique is not of the dancers, but of the Academy and the Hollywood professionals in charge of this number. Indian American dancers were robbed of an opportunity not only to showcase their culture, but to book an incredible job that would have boosted their careers and brought overwhelming support to everyone involved. Especially those who preserved integrity in their work as well as in the integrity of the film in question.
Post performance, an outcry of responses appeared on social media following several Indian dancers and choreographers who claim to have been rejected upon auditioning for the performance. I posted an Instagram story detailing my reaction to the choice of casting and had a response from Nappytabs, in regards to my story, sent to me. In the response, Nappytabs claimed a tight deadline to cast the performance in one to two days and only a week to choreograph and rehearse.
As a dancer who has trained in various dance styles, such as Bharatnatyam and Hip Hop for over 15 years, as well as spending time at companies like Disney, 20th Century and ABC Entertainment, I understand the constraints of show businesses. However, there were signed industry dancers such as Ramita Ravi, Joya Kazi and Amira Devera, trained classical and contemporary dancers, who shared on Instagram that they had reached out to audition and were rejected under the premise of the production already being cast by Hollywood professionals. Whether or not this was the intention, these casting decisions amount to the exclusion of Indian American dancers in Hollywood who would have benefitted from a career opportunity like this.
Nappytabs went on to further say, “In addition [the dancers] needed to dance at a level that we know works in the fast paced tv world. The worst thing would be to hire dancers that couldn’t accomplish this very difficult feat and then let down the Films Team, The Oscars, and all the Tollywood fans around the world. Not saying we could NEVER have found what we wanted, we were just constrained on time and other factors. If we had a month, I’m sure this would have worked out with our first choice.”
I was stunned at this response. I can understand and empathize with the pressures of choreographing a dance for an awards show of this standing. Often projects at Disney had a very quick casting turnaround with several restrictions and time constraints. To have a two day turnaround to cast is extremely difficult, especially when I can believe that the number of Indian or South Asian male dancers who are a part of the SAG/Aftra union and are local to LA is small. But it is not zero. Nappytabs has had a longtime connection to So You Think You Can Dance where Nakul Dev Mahajan was a choreographer for Bollywood from 2008-2019. At the very least, including one, just one, Indian American or South Asian dancer in the ensemble of 10+ dancers was not an impossible option by any means.
I can also understand that with the backing of “RRR” producer Raj Kapoor, it’s hard to see where the fault lies. Kapoor said, “this performance was extremely personal to me since India is my birthplace. Growing up watching Indian movies but never having the opportunity to have worked professionally on an Indian film project, I felt a deeper calling to honor this very special film. My father passed away in late July of 2022 and he was always so extremely proud anytime there was some notable achievement of a person from India that made the news. His sense of pride was indicative of how proud people in India are when South Asian artists are celebrated on a global platform… I really wanted it to be a love letter to Bollywood/Tollywood musicals, the people of India, and the global impact of dance.”
It’s difficult to grasp the divide between how Indian and Indian American audiences view cultural representation. In October 2021, several Bollywood fans excitement at the announcement of the new Broadway show “Come Fall in Love” based off of the well known film “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” was quickly dashed upon discovery that the male lead would be played by a white actor instead of the movie’s Indian lead. It was Aditya Chopra’s original vision for the movie to have a white male lead. To me it was another example of how a lot of Indian media seeks validation from Western media by adding non-Indian roles instead of celebrating its own people. For many of us Indian American artists, the exclusion of South Asian dancers during the Oscars performance has been part of a longer and painful experience of invisibility and a failure to recognize our contributions to the larger culture in the United States.
Adding insult to injury, the specific casting of Lauren Gottlieb, an American dancer, to the Oscars performance highlighted the cultural appropriation that white performers profit off of South Asian culture. Gottlieb, who’s career rose after being cast in the lead role of the Indian dance film “ABCD: Any Body Can Dance”, is an example of a white dancer who has profited off of being able to shift her audience across language barriers and borders. Her casting is part of a larger systemic issue where Asian Americans are still underrepresented in the professional dance industry. U.S. Census numbers from 2021 show that while Asian Americans make up 7% of the U.S. population, they make up only 3% of industry wide dancers and choreographers. In response to having been asked to perform for the number, Gottlieb said in an interview, “I feel so grateful to have been given the opportunity to represent India on such a global platform. Oscars are one of the biggest stages in the world and for India to be represented in such a big way and get nominated is incredible.” She further mentioned, “The fact that I have been chosen to be the lead female dancer and connect Bollywood and Hollywood, both the closest things to my heart, is surreal. I feel a big sense of responsibility to make sure the piece is authentic and makes India proud.” How can a white American with no cultural ties to India possibly represent the country or condone the absence of its people as responsible representation?
Of the half dozen Indian dancers who auditioned for the Oscars, they together share credits on Netflix shows like “Never Have I Ever”, HBO specials, Miss America pageants, Coachella, Dance India Dance, Broadway shows, “So You Think You Can Dance” — many of them were equally qualified as their peers who performed on stage that day.
And more specifically, the choreography was in the tradition of a South Indian style. There are choreographers such as Reena Shah and Svetlana Tulasi who have dedicated their careers towards this genre who’ve had experience adapting it for American audiences. What better opportunity than to center Indian choreographers who have this expertise? The choice to cast non-South Asian dancers as the principal performers is especially frustrating because it shows me that the people in charge either don’t have the resources to find them or simply didn’t care to.
These issues aren’t just limited to the Oscars. Overt racism in the elite world of dance has been well documented. Just in 2019, Misty Copeland called out one of the world’s leading ballet companies after their performers were photographed in blackface portraying a production set in India. It’s these small ways that the industry has been exclusionary towards Indian dancers that cause us to lose out on major opportunities like this.The Oscars team received auditions from Indian dancers local to Los Angeles, but their choice to move forward with non-Indian dancers they viewed as more fit to perform for television insinuates that the Indian dancers who auditioned are not capable of representing their own culture.
You can even notice subtle aggressions in the way the speeches were handled. I came across a TikTok by user @iam7evn who did a side by side comparison of the back-to-back acceptance speeches of “The Elephant Whisperer” and “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse”. This video, which has garnered over 3 million views between Tiktok and Twitter, shows Director Gurneet Monga (The Elephant Whisperers) giving a 43 second thank you speech for winning Best Documentary Short. When her producer Kartiki Gonsalves comes to take the mic, she is immediately played off the stage. Immediately afterwards Matthew Freud and Charlie Mackesy come up to accept the award for Best Animated Film (The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse). Freud speaks for 42 seconds and hands the mic over to writer-director Mackesy who, to no surprise, gets to finish his speech without interruption. This is one of the small details throughout the night that showcases how even in positions of celebration, Indian professionals don’t have the right to fully take up space the way their white counterparts do.
I put forth these critiques to point out that we can and should do better. Choreographer Rujuta Vaidya worked on the Oscar performance of Slumdog Millionaire’s hit song ‘Jai Ho’ in 2009. Even back then, she was able to bring in a small number of Indian dancers to join in on the performance. I’m confused as to how this year’s team was unable to do something similar.
I do want to offer my congratulations to the teams of RRR, The Elephant Whisperers, and Everything Everywhere All At Once for their historic wins. This year’s Oscars awards were groundbreaking for Asian artists. But the irony is that the performance of “Naatu Naatu”, a song about throwing off the chains of colonization, is still shackled by the limits of a white-dominated arts industry.
Chitra Jagannathan is a Malayali American dancer, actress, independent fashion designer
based in Los Angeles. With a passion for arts criticism, she has written stories about South
Asian representation in culture and critiques on social media influencers that have gone viral on
her personal platforms in the past.