Komma Uyyala

“Naatu Naatu” was maybe the third or fourth best song in RRR. “Dosti” had better vocals, choreography, and cinematography. “Komuram Bheemudo” was fairly intense as were the costumes and make-up in it. I would not have been offended if all these non-Indians, non-South Asian dancers were part of that score on stage. But it doesn’t make for feel-good primetime TV. “Komma Uyyala” also doesn’t have a real dance scene. It’s a child abduction by the British. The Telagu version of “Komma Uyyala” still has 69 million views, three million more than “Naatu Naatu” in Telagu.

It’s when the scenes of a movie are picked and chosen for what will satisfy the Western audience through its colonial gaze, that burns. The Academy wasn’t concerned about the blatant casteism in the film.

Another type of bias occurred in the remake of Aladdin. The Arab saga was fused with Persian and Indian dance moves to a blob of the brown Other. I remember when I was in line to see it with my kids that a parent who was in front of us with her daughter was asked, “Why do we have to see Aladdin?”

The mom replied, “Will Smith plays the genie.”

I knew the kid was digging neither Aladdin nor Will Smith, but the mother had to relive her past. That’s why we were both in the line. Yet I didn’t have to convince my kids to see it. But my kids did have to endure my teach-in before we saw it.

Naomi Scott as Jasmine in Aladdin. (Photo: Daniel Smith/Walt Disney Studios)

Going into the new film [of Aladdin], which was directed by Guy Ritchie with a script he cowrote with John August, I didn’t have high expectations. The trailers were lackluster, the sets looked like sets, and Will Smith’s Genie looked, well, preposterous. In reality, the film is no disaster. It’s . . . fine. The charismatic group of lead actors are refreshingly diverse—they’re Egyptian, Indian-British, Tunisian, Iranian, Iranian-American, and African-American—and offer a stark contrast to the white-washed original cast. That said, I was disappointed that the film made no real efforts to delve deeper into the culture it is purporting to portray. 

New Aladdin is almost a scene-for-scene copy of the original. Ritchie’s vision, it appears, was to merely re-create the animated world from 1992 via modern technology, without reinterpreting the story in larger ways. Sure, background characters can be heard saying “Yallah” (Arabic for “come on,” “come here,” or “hurry”), and the guards chasing Aladdin (Mena Massoud) speak Arabic to each other. But this injection of language plays as mere filler. Instead of clichéd, surface-deep scenes of bustling souks and a parade of elaborate headdresses, I was hoping for more intimate scenes that showed everyday life in the Middle East—a meal inside a family home, for instance. Even the souk merchants largely function as set dressing whose interaction with Jasmine and Aladdin is minimal. It’s as if Disney was so afraid of perpetuating the same cultural stereotypes it has been chastised for in the past that it opted for bland safety over vivid characterization. There’s very little on screen, beyond the lush color of the elaborate sets and costumes, that gives us the sense that we’ve been transported to an Arabian kingdom. Call it pseudo-Arabia. 

The Aladdin remake still can’t get Arab culture right, Fast Company, May 24, 2019.

Back to RRR, there appears to be high fives all around for the colonial fantasy. India won its first Oscar for the best original song.

In 1992, Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray received an Honorary Academy Award, becoming the only Indian to receive the honor. Resul Pookutty and A. R. Rahman won the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing and Best Original Score respectively for the 2008 British film Slumdog Millionaire. Yet it was for a British film about the Indian diaspora and didn’t exactly count as Indian Indian.

Riz Ahmed and Aneil Karia won the Best Live Action Short for “The Long Goodbye” in 2022. But Riz is Pakistani. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won Oscars in 2012 and 2016 for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Bhanu Athaiya won an Oscar as an Indian in 1983 for “Gandhi” for Costume Design. Just to make clear the first Oscars for both India and Pakistan were won by WOMEN.

Naatu Naatu has stood out for not just the lyrics or the beat, but equally for the absolute banger of a performance from Junior NTR and Ram Charan as Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju take on a dance challenge against a firang (westerner), and winning it. And to have a performance at the Academy Awards stage that engages in passing is tone-deaf, to say the least.

‘Passing’ refers to instances when members of a racial, ethnic, or religious group present themselves as belonging to another such group. In this instance, the two lead dancers, Billy Mustafa and Jason Glover who do not belong to South Asian heritage in any way, were passed off as being Indians, and more specifically, from different communities in South India.

While Billy is a Lebanese-Canadian, Jason Glover is American. They were dressed up as the characters played by NTR and Charan, and took to stage to perform a number that explicitly questions and challenges colonialism and White supremacy in the film. Indeed, the closest link to India for anyone in the list of performers is probably Lauren Gottileb, who dances as Jennifer in RRR. Gottileb has acted and danced in ABCD: Any Body Can Dance (2013).

Tina Das, Celebrate Naatu Naatu’s Oscar but don’t forget this exclusion, The Print, March 12, 2023.

I prefer the sounds of an elephant stampede in the mornings. The soundtrack of Baahubali with OJ. The Indian in me will own the Oscar, but the American will despise the the craven patriotic fervor and patronizing brotherhood that appears in film and not in real life.

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Nadia Ahmad

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