When I invited a friend to see RRR with me last June, they initially declined; they’d heard the Indian blockbuster was a musical, and musicals weren’t their thing.
This is true, in the sense that Everything Everywhere All at Once is a family drama: technically accurate, but not reflective of a greater whole. Over two acts and three hours, RRR is part period piece, part action epic, part national myth, part buddy comedy, and yes, part musical. All of these elements work together to create one of the year’s great crowd-pleasers, and they crescendo with one of its most memorable scenes: a rollicking, rambunctious performance of “Naatu Naatu,” the number now Oscar-nominated for Best Original Song.
The academy’s acknowledgment has made Oscar history. RRR is now the first Indian film to earn a nomination in any category outside of Best International Feature Film, an award it wasn’t even eligible for thanks to a quirk of Oscar bylaws. (Countries are allowed to submit only one film apiece, and India’s selection for 2022 was the magic-of-movies drama Last Film Show.) RRR’s producers nonetheless waged a full-fledged campaign here in the States, and while it’s disappointing the film didn’t get even more recognition—for director S.S. Rajamouli, or for spectacular use of visual effects—its single nod still sums up what makes the movie worth celebrating.
RRR begins with a man vaulting himself over a barbed wire fence to single-handedly beat back a crowd of thousands. This isn’t a plot that escalates over time; it simply pivots from one climax to the next. “Naatu Naatu” arrives about an hour later, when tribal warrior Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) accepts his English crush’s invitation to a garden party at imperial HQ. (RRR takes place in the 1920s, when India was still two decades from independence.) Bheem recruits his new friend Ram (Ram Charan) to tag along as moral support. Each man is lying to the other: Bheem, on a mission in Delhi to rescue a child abducted by a British official, has been posing as a Muslim mechanic named Akhtar; Ram is a member of the Imperial Police assigned to apprehend Bheem. But neither knows the other’s true identity—for now.
Despite the deceit, Bheem and Ram have incredible platonic chemistry that forms the foundation of “Naatu Naatu.” The sequence featuring the song was filmed at the Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, before the Russian invasion. When a peevish Brit humiliates Bheem for not knowing Western styles of dance like flamenco, Ram takes charge and issues a challenge of his own. What follows is four minutes of embarrassing the British on their own turf, a raucous party that ends only when Ram throws the dance-off for the benefit of his new bestie. Bheem’s love interest is watching, and Ram wants to help him make a good impression.
In a movie that also includes Bheem battling a tiger with his bare hands and an aerial rescue involving a motorcycle, “Naatu Naatu” may be the most impressive action sequence. These days, the typical Best Original Song nominee is either an excerpt from a musical chock-full of tracks, like La La Land’s “City of Stars,” or a clip that doesn’t actually appear in the film itself—often a pop star cameo played over the opening or closing credits, like Billie Eilish’s Bond theme. “Naatu Naatu” is something different: a musical performance that moves the story forward in a movie that isn’t primarily musical, challenging the binary of “musical” versus “not” and making the song itself more integral to the film than some competitors’ songs are.
In 2009, composer A.R. Rahman and lyricist Gulzar won Best Original Song for their work on Slumdog Millionaire. Should M.M. Keeravani and Chandrabose, who served the same respective roles for RRR, emerge victorious later this month, they’ll be the first South Asian artists to win since, and the first ever to win on behalf of an Indian production. (Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire was a British homage to Indian influences, not an official export.) RRR also marks a breakthrough within Indian cinema itself: It’s a product of “Tollywood,” the Telugu-language, Hyderabad-based industry that’s a regional peer to Mumbai’s Hindi-based Bollywood. The version widely available to stream on Netflix is a Hindi dub, but RRR’s international success—including $15 million at the box office here in the States—still showcases the diversity of a country the Oscar nomination structure treats as a monolith.
Keeravani translates “naatu” as “ethnicity,” while Chandrabose interprets it as “raw” or “rustic.” Those motifs are reflected in the lyrics, which include references to banyan trees, the national tree of India, and Indian green chilies, while the song’s instrumentation makes use of traditional duff drums. RRR, which stands for Rise Roar Revolt, is a celebration of Indian identity in the face of centuries-long Western occupation, and “Naatu Naatu” is as much an expression of that as any battle is. (Both Ram and Bheem are based on real-life resistance figures, albeit extremely loosely.) RRR does make use of Hindu iconography against a backdrop of rising right-wing pressure on the traditionally secular Indian film industry; a right-wing member of government did briefly bear down on RRR. Still, the film is ultimately analogous to domestic productions like Top Gun: Maverick—easy to enjoy even while one notes its nationalist overtones.
As symbolized by Parasite’s Best Picture win in early 2020 (were we ever so young?), it’s become increasingly standard for the academy to recognize world cinema alongside American productions, not just in its designated international category. Films like Cold War, Another Round, Drive My Car, and The Worst Person in the World have appeared all over the ballot, a hopefully permanent break from precedent that’s driven by an increasingly international votership. But RRR isn’t the kind of movie to gain momentum at highbrow festivals. It’s a loud-and-proud epic better suited to hooting, hollering, and singing along than chin-stroking reflection.
“Naatu Naatu” will be performed live at the Oscar ceremony later this month; even if it doesn’t take home the statue, it’ll be prominently featured as part of the show. But ideally, RRR’s impact will extend beyond a single award cycle. Before I took my friend to see the not-really-musical, I hadn’t made a habit of seeing new Indian releases in theaters. The ecstatic crowd response changed that for me, and hopefully for others. (An interesting side effect of the pandemic is that diversifying one’s taste has only become easier; as the supply of Hollywood movies to theater chains has slowed, more screens have gone to international or independent titles.) Last month, I treated myself to a showing of Pathaan, the comeback of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan with a catchy song of its own. It’s no “Naatu Naatu,” but what is?