Nearly a week after the Oscars, the hurt and disappointment of a missed opportunity still weighs heavily on some South Asian American dancers, who are setting out to make sure it never happens again.
Many in the South Asian dance community were dismayed by the stunning lack of South Asian representation in the “Naatu Naatu” performance at Sunday’s Academy Awards. While singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava were on hand to perform their hit tune from the Tollywood smash “RRR” – which made history for India that night by winning Best Original Song – they were joined on stage by not a single dancer of South Asian inheritance.
How could the Academy get it so wrong? Especially when they broke through 14 years ago staging AR Rahman’s “Slumdog Millionaire” hit “Jai Ho” at the 2009 Oscars as part of a widely celebrated four-minute medley.
“(The 2009 Oscars) had Indian singers and it was a multi-racial group of dancers and musicians,” explains Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who specializes in the history of representations of race and gender in the media. “They really showed that music has this global power. That’s why people didn’t have a problem at the time.”
While Sunday night marked a historic turning point for India, which also won best short film for Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga’s “The Elephant Whisperers”, the glaring absence of South Asian artists on Hollywood’s biggest stage was the “last straw” for dancers such as Achinta S. McDaniel.
“Some people say, ‘Just happy with what we got,’ and that’s part of (the problem) — this idea of just accepting the scraps that are thrown at you,” McDaniel, founder and artistic director of Los Angeles – based Blue13 Dance Company, tells Variety. “Just be happy an Indian song was nominated (and won). Don’t be mad about the overwhelming racism that appeared in the performance.”
McDaniel’s agent tapped her to serve as associate consultant for the performance two weeks before the Oscars, but her rep was told that AMPAS-selected choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo—the Los Angeles-based duo known as NappyTabs—already had hired their team. (Variety (understands that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith advised on the Oscars, but that NappyTabs were the primary choreographers.)
“(Equity is) a big part of what I’m interested in, and this has encouraged so many of my colleagues in the field,” says McDaniel. “Now that’s enough. This is the final straw.”
McDaniel is hosting a Zoom on Saturday for South Asians in the dance community to unpack the Oscar events and plan a South Asian summit this summer — an event she hopes to hold in conjunction with the national organization Dance/USA’s annual conference.
“This really lit a fire,” says McDaniel. “So many people are joining this Zoom so we can start making real change. It’s been too long since we’ve been quiet.”
Vikas Arun, a New York-based dancer and teacher specializing in forms of Western and Indian rhythmic and percussive dance, tells Variety there have also been talks this week about building a cross-cutting advocacy group that can come together on behalf of South Asian entertainers in times of crisis.
“When other minorities face (incidents like this), they have organizations they can go to,” says Arun. “Our society is bad at having organized advocacy because there are so few of us. We individually fight our own battle and there is no central organization. It also makes it frustrating for new South Asian artists who aren’t on our level (and don’t have the connections).
Davé, who authored the 2013 book “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film,” agrees that the “next step” in the conversation is to further interrogate the advocacy of South Asian entertainers.
“It’s about thinking about representation and advocacy for not only directors, writers and actors, but also artists on a larger scale,” says Davé. “I think dancers have been left out of this conversation. So when we look at casting agencies and talent agencies, (we have to ask) where are the agents who speak for the establishment?
According to talents like Ramita Ravi, another professional dancer and choreographer whose agent put her forward for the Oscars, situations like the Oscar performance “unfortunately happen all the time.”
“I can name a handful of personal experiences that follow the same thread,” she says Variety over e-mail. “But the beauty of us coming together is that supporting each other and building a collective, inclusive voice can create change so that this doesn’t continue to happen in the future.”
Interestingly, five days after the awards ceremony, there is still some confusion about how the production was done in the first place. It was initially believed that “RRR” actors NTR Jr. and Ram Charan himself wanted to perform the dance, but Oscars producer Raj Kapoor stated in an AMPAS blog that the actors declined as they were not comfortable doing so with the time constraints. As such, their characters were represented on stage by Lebanese Canadian dancer Billy Mustapha and American dancer Jason Glover, who many mistakenly assumed was of South Asian heritage.
A source tells Variety that AMPAS then intended to fly over dancers from India to support the performance, but their work visas fell through, prompting NappyTabs to employ their own dancers. (This claim has been disputed by several dancers.)
While a source close to the production says AMPAS tried to ensure that the original team from India was involved in every creative decision – a team that included the film’s PR team, SS Rajamouli’s son Karthikeya Rajamouli, “RRR” producers and composer MM Keeravaani – the outrage over the resulting performance also highlights the divergence in what representation means for nationals versus those who are part of a diaspora.
“For many South Asian Americans in the US, we were born and raised in America and feel a very strong sense of belonging here,” explains Ravi. “For other generations, and especially immigrants or people living in India, it’s a bit of a different equation – they might be happy to be invited to the table, while the diaspora wants to help build the table. That way, I think I think that the idea of representation is very different across the diaspora.”
Davé adds: “The Indian cinema industry is the largest in the world, and when you come from that background and that environment, you don’t see the injustices that happen in the diaspora and in Hollywood. So (the ‘RRR’ team) was thrilled to win an Oscar – and rightfully so.”
But for those in the diaspora, representation means a lot, says Davé.
“We see the inequality in the major industries in America and what it does is reinforce the idea that South Asians are foreigners living on the other side of the world and they are not part of the culture and history of Hollywood. and the US, which is not true. South Asians have been in Hollywood and for many years have been forced into roles that were small or forced to hide (completely). So to try to diminish that in an era where we have seen so much progress – it’s problematic.”