“Not salsa, not flamenco, my brother. Do you know … naatu?”
This friendly challenge kicks off the “Naatu Naatu” number in the Indian blockbuster “RRR.” The tune is nominated for the Academy Award for best original song — a first for an Indian production despite the industry’s worldwide renown for musicals. Fifteen years ago the Indian hitmaker A.R. Rahman won for both song and score for “Slumdog Millionaire,” but that was a British production from director Danny Boyle. “RRR” is a homegrown hit straight from South India and the Telugu-language film center known as Tollywood.
Set in 1920s colonial India, “RRR,” directed by S.S. Rajamouli, pits a tribal warrior, Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr., known as Jr. NTR), against an Indian officer for the British police, Ram (Ram Charan), who is assigned to find him. But the two become friends, and in the “Naatu Naatu” sequence, they go up against a British bully who wants to eject them from a lawn party. (Set against the pink-and-blue Mariinsky Palace, the sequence was filmed in Kyiv, Ukraine, before the Russian invasion.)
The marathon dance-off that follows has delighted hundreds of millions of YouTube viewers and millions of moviegoers.
Part of the scene’s energy comes from a giddy sense of competition. Rajamouli conceived “Naatu Naatu” as a kind of fight sequence: a showdown between the dynamic Indian duo and the pompous colonialists, with fiery steps instead of punches. Bheem and Ram dance their hearts out, all smiles in front of admiring British ladies, which inflames that bully, Jake (Eduard Buhac), into some laughably angry dancing.
Jr. RTR and Charan make a mesmerizing team, dancing in sync side by side, as legions of ladies and lads in formal wear struggle to keep up with them.
“Rajamouli told me that their styles had to match each other,” the film’s choreographer, Prem Rakshith, said, speaking in English with a translator on hand during a video call. “It had to be difficult, but all the people had to do it.”
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For the actual step, Rakshith chose a jiglike routine known as a hook step, with lots of switchback movements for arms and legs. It’s fun to watch and (as TikToks attest) to imitate. “I wanted everybody to grasp the hook step and enjoy doing it,” Rakshith said.
The musical number has a wild, uncontainable feel, like the film’s action scenes. (Despite the head-spinning pace and synchronization, none of the dancing was artificially sped up or digitally altered, according to the film’s editor, Sreekar Prasad.)Rakshith added colorful flourishes — a synchronized head- and foot-swivel, and stretchy suspenders moves — that turn Bheem and Ram into action figures of pure joy. The suspender bit was an on-the-spot innovation by the choreographer.
“When they both enter the party, they’re wearing coats. But the body moves couldn’t be seen with the coats, so we removed them. And then I thought, ‘What will I do?’” Rakshith recalled before demonstrating the move.
As movie musical fans know (and wish everyone knew), how you shoot a dance is as important as the moves. Rajamouli gets this, and in one of the vivid variations in his camerawork, he films the grinning stars head-to-toe facing the camera as they dance side by side.
The tableau evokes duets from classical Indian musicals as well as the golden age of MGM. Rajamouli has cited Western influences like Charlie Chaplin and Tom and Jerry, and when I mentioned this to Rakshith, he spoke up: “I love Tom and Jerry!”
As a track, “Naatu Naatu” is also simply a banger. The pulsating rhythms of the drums and chorus are contagiously propulsive, and they feel more organic than many synthetic beats. On a video call, M. M. Keeravani, the song’s composer, compared the sound to the traditional beats of folk songs celebrated in villages. “That’s why this particular time signature and beat is selected for this song,” he said, referring to the rollicking 6/8 tempo.
The rustic sound also comes alive in the instrumentation. In recording “Naatu Naatu,” Keeravani used duffs, an Indian skin drum held with the hands. “The duff will give you a pungent, resonant, very bright sound,” he said.
Eight or more duffs were used for the beats, primarily supported by timpani and other percussion from a synthesizer and mandolins for the melody, along with further processed elements. As the dance marathon reaches a fevered pitch, the beats and vocals grow trancelike with help from a throbbing echo effect.
Although the song is a dance hit, Keeravani is better known in India for soulful ballads and more classical work in a career dating to the 1990s, according to Narendra Kusnur, a music critic for The Hindustan Times.
“Keeravani has done some fantastic movies. This was a break for him, a recognition that was long overdue,” Kusnur said in an interview.
But the composer (who has worked on every film by Rajamouli, a cousin) readily attributes the breakout success of “Naatu Naatu” to Rakshith’s choreography. “I was expecting some stomping on the ground, but I never expected that particular dual step. It was completely amazing,” Keeravani said.
He shares the Oscar nomination (and already a Golden Globe) with the songwriter, Chandrabose, whose lyrics, he said, give the song “an inherent beat.” Speaking via video, Chandrabose remembered that Rajamouli had played up the positive vibe of the scene when first describing it.
“Sing about yourself, your strength, your struggle, whatever you want to sing. The one thing not to write is: don’t criticize other people,” Chandrabose said Rajamouli told him.
His Telugu-language verses brim with the sunny rural imagery of banyan trees, leaping bulls and green chili peppers. “Jump until the dust rises into the air!” runs one line — which is exactly what happens in the movie, as dancers kick up clouds of dirt.
The singers on the track, Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava, lend a festive bounce and snap to the verses, playfully embodied by Jr. RTR and Charan.
But one question remains: What is “naatu”?
“Naatu means raw and rustic,” Chandrabose said. He grew up in a small village in Telangana, a Telugu-speaking state whose capital, Hyderabad, is the home base for Tollywood. “Everything I wrote in the song is from my childhood memories of my life and my parents. That’s why I created it very fast,” he said.
Chandrabose said he had thought of two lines starting with “naatu naatu” on the way home from his talk with Rajamouli. Writing the lyrics took “only one hour.” The entire song production, up to the final master recording, took longer: a little under two months off and on over a two-year span.
Both Keeravani and Chandrabose underlined the very local sense of naatu. “It’s a word that says ‘something of our own, our own culture,’” Keeravani said. That’s reflected in how the “Naatu Naatu” sequences unfolds. Bheem and Ram defeat the colonial oppressors through their own tradition of dance.
Structurally, “Naatu Naatu” is like the movie in miniature, and that’s how Rajamouli has described the sequence, as a “story within the story.” It even has its own charming twist ending. As the British partygoers collapse one by one, Bheem and Ram are left to compete with each other. But Ram, seeing Bheem’s Anglo sweetheart cheering her beloved on, fakes a fall to let his friend win. Love and friendship triumph; who can resist?
It’s a stirring message for this Academy Award-nominated song, which will reportedly be performed in some fashion during the March 12 ceremony. The song’s creators are also eager to meet their fellow nominees: Keeravani said he was a fan of Rihanna (who’s nominated for “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”), while Chandrabose singled out the Weeknd’s “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength)” from “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
But above all, they were pleased that the world now truly does know “naatu.”
“That is the creativity of an artist: you should take the local thing onto the global platform,” Keeravani said. “That is the model of the art.”