The unbridled joy of ‘Naatu’

As straightforward as it may seem, the whole song bursts with the simplicity and beauty of a fable
Ram Charan and Junior NTR from Naatu Naatu song
Ram Charan and Junior NTR from Naatu Naatu song

Everyone who’s ever been powerful knows the persuasive impact of art. And so, over millennia, they have tried to wield, manipulate, and distort it. And yet, art delivers its necessary, periodic reminders that it has a mind of its own, that its wings cannot be cut, and that its flight cannot be controlled. All we can do sometimes is observe and marvel.

In the latest and the most heartening example, a song from Rajamouli’s RRR, ‘Naatu Naatu’, has been chosen as the ‘Best Original Song’ at the Golden Globe Awards. Pause for a moment and consider that recognition once more.

When headlines are ever-changing, and nothing registers for too long, it’s important to consider what this Golden Globe Award—the first ever for an Indian song from an Indian film—means.

Consider our film artists growing up on Western cinema; consider them dreaming of these awards as apex achievements in their field; consider the apparent ridiculousness of a child imagining that they might, someday, share the stage with the likes of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron (which has happened for the RRR team). Slumdog Millionaire, a British film by Danny Boyle, fetched Oscars to three of our own—A R Rahman, Gulzar, and Resul Pookutty. It was an incredible achievement, no doubt, but it still made you wonder whether such recognition could be gained only through associations with Western filmmakers.

However, ‘Naatu Naatu’ isn’t a track from an English film. It’s not even from Hindi cinema, an industry often confused as a singular Indian cinematic entity by the West. ‘Naatu Naatu’ is from a Telugu film made by filmmaker S S Rajamouli who’s so ferociously proud of his language and his art.

The film stars Ram Charan and Junior NTR—both known for their work in Telugu cinema—and has music by Keeravani, who’s getting his due for many decades of quality work, not just in Telugu but in Tamil cinema (where he’s called Maragathamani) and Hindi cinema (where he’s called Kreem).

While Rajamouli’s Baahubali films were a sensation across the country, Keeravani’s contributions—that exuded such melodic, orchestral flair—still seemed to fly under the radar. When Amarendra Baahubali flew off a cliff, aiming his arrow at a tree he dared not miss, it was easy to be entranced by Rajamouli’s visual imagination and forget that the miraculous moment was elevated by the highpoint of Keeravani’s song, Dheevara. When Amarendra Baahubali sliced off a rival prince’s head in an unforgettable action sequence, it was easy to be agape in shock and forget the power of Keeravani’s score, whose trumpets and primal chanting made you tremble so.

A question that is being asked in response to the growing international acclaim of ‘Naatu Naatu’ is, “Why this song?” When you watch the song, the answers become apparent. It is a rare film song that is better seen than heard. Perhaps for this reason, the composer remembered congratulating the choreographer Prem Rakshit in his acceptance speech. ‘Naatu Naatu’ doesn’t fail to fill you up with joy every time you watch it. The video song is a rare, effective confluence of several art forms: a relentlessly energetic track, great writing to set it all up, art direction that imagines a grand stage outside a palace, incredible dance choreography, two stars who give it everything and let’s not forget, the humour at the heart of it all. “Not salsa, not flamenco, brother, do you know naatu?” begins Ram Charan (playing Ram) to a puzzled Englishman.

It’s a song that takes great pride in its roots. The sound of it, the dance of it… Even in facial expression, N T Rama Rao Jr (playing Bheem) reminds the English princess that she is to fold her tongue while dancing. This unabashed pride in identity is registered in the face of a white man going, “This is disgusting; this is filth!” There’s value in asking whether the Western world loves this song only because it caters to their definitions of our cinema.

Perhaps they don’t care to understand the variety we have; perhaps they may not be appreciative of cinematic work that doesn’t subscribe to their understanding of who we are. Perhaps it helped that the visual of this song features some of their own. These could be valid, even if cynical questions.

Fascinatingly, this is the kind of cynicism the spirit of ‘Naatu Naatu’ stands against. The 274 seconds of the song inspire a rare loss of inhibition; they urge you to let go, give in, trust, and just dance. Worry later, dance now. For those seconds, everyone—the oppressive white man, the meek princess, the Indian rebels—is equal in dance and joy. And this conviction in letting go and having fun—plain and vanilla as it may seem during these times of perennially conflicting discourse—has understandably managed to capture the imagination of the world. Darkness looms everywhere, systems designed to protect us are oppressing us, and faith and trust are being steadily eroded. It’s in these times that ‘Naatu’ is being celebrated.

As Ram points out at the beginning of the song, the dance is not flamenco or salsa. It’s not Western in inspiration; it’s our own, and there are no complex rules to follow. Just let go and keep kicking your leg in dance until you collapse in fatigue. While on messaging, there’s even time in this 4-minute odd song for an act of sacrifice at the end.

As straightforward as it may seem, the whole song bursts with the simplicity and beauty of a fable. In complicated times, such a fable is perhaps what we all need.

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