February 25, 2024

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The Natto Oscar controversy: South Asian dancers fight for fairness

The Natto Oscar controversy: South Asian dancers fight for fairness

Nearly a week after the Oscars, the hurt and frustration of a missed opportunity still weighs heavily on the minds of some South Asian American dancers, who set out to ensure it never happens again.

Much of the South Asian dance community was dismayed by the surprising paucity of South Asian representation in the performance of “Natto Nattu” at the Academy Awards on Sunday. While singers Rahul Sipligong and Kala 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 not joined on stage by a single dancer of South Asian heritage.

How could the Academy go wrong about this? Especially when, 14 years ago, they nailed it by staging AR Rahman’s “Slumdog Millionaire” song “Jai Ho” at the 2009 Academy Awards as part of a four-minute large-scale celebration.

“[The 2009 Oscars] She had Indian singers and it was a multiracial group of dancers and musicians, explains Shilpa Devi, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who specializes in the history of representation of race and gender in the media. “They were really showing that music has this universal 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 Documentary Short for Kartiki Gonsalves and Jeuneet Monga’s “The Elephant Whisperers,” the stark absence of South Asian artists on Hollywood’s biggest stage was the “last straw” for dancers like Achinta S. McDaniel.

Some people say, ‘Just be happy with what we got,’ and that’s part of it [the problem] — this idea of ​​accepting the scraps that are thrown just for you,” McDaniel, founder and artistic director of Los Angeles-based Blue13 Dance Company, says. diverse. “Just Be Happy” Hindi Song Nominated [and won]. Don’t be outraged by the overwhelming racism that was shown in the performance.”

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McDaniel’s agent introduced her to work as a co-performance consultant two weeks before the Oscars, but her representative was told that AMPAS shortlisted choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon Duomo — the Los Angeles-based duo known as NappyTabs — had already hired their team. (diverse Understand that “RRR” choreographer Prem Rakshith was advising on the Oscars performance, but NappyTabs was the primary choreographer.)

“[Equity is] “A big part of what I care about, and that has motivated a lot of my colleagues in the field,” says McDaniel. “Now that’s enough. This is the last straw.”

McDaniel is hosting a Saturday Zoom for South Asians in the dance community to offload Oscars events and plan ahead for this summer’s South Asian Summit — an event she hopes to co-organise with the National Organization Dance/USA annual conference.

“It really lit a fire,” says McDaniel. “A lot of people are joining this Zoom program so we can start to make real change. It’s been a long time since we’ve been silent.”

Narrates Vikas Arun, a New York-based dancer and teacher who specializes in Western and Indian percussive and percussive dance forms. diverse There have also been discussions this week about building a cross-functional advocacy group that can come together on behalf of South Asian artists in moments of crisis.

when faced with other minorities [incidents like this]”They have organizations they can go to,” says Aaron. “Our community is poor at organizing advocacy because there are so few of us. We individually fight our battle, and there is no central organization. It also makes it frustrating for new South Asian artists who are not on our level.” [and don’t have the connections]. “

Davey, who is the author of the 2013 book Indian Accents: The Brown Voice and Ethnic Performance in American Television and Film, agrees that the “next step” in the conversation is to further interrogate the endorsement of South Asian entertainers.

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“It’s about thinking about representation and advocacy not only for directors, writers, and actors, but for performers more broadly as well,” says Davey. “I think dancers are left out of this conversation. So when we look at casting agencies and talent agencies, [we need to ask] Where are the agents who defend the establishment? “

According to talent like Ramita Ravi, another professional dancer and choreographer who is put at the Oscars by her agent, situations like performing at the Oscars “unfortunately happen all the time.”

“I can name a handful of personal experiences that follow the same theme,” she says. diverse By email. “But the beauty of us coming together is that supporting each other and building an inclusive collective voice can create change so that this does not continue to happen in the future.”

Interestingly enough, five days after the awards, there is still some confusion about how the production happened in the first place. It was initially believed that representatives of “RRR” NTR Jr. and Ram Charan would perform the dance themselves, but Oscar producer Raj Kapoor detailed on the AMPAS blog that the actors declined, as they were not comfortable doing so with time constraints. As such, their characters were represented on stage by Canadian-Lebanese dancer Billy Mustafa and American dancer Jason Glover, who many wrongly assumed was of South Asian descent.

says one source diverse that AMPAS then intended to fly over dancers from India to support the performance, but their work visas fell through, prompting NappyTabs to hire their own dancers. (This claim has been challenged by several dancers.)

While a source close to the production says AMPAS tried to ensure that the native team from India was committed to 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 shines a spotlight. Also on the difference in the meaning of representation for natives versus those of the diaspora.

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“For many South Asian Americans in the United States, we were born and raised in America and feel a very great sense of belonging here,” Ravi explains. “For other generations, especially immigrants or people living in India, it’s a little bit different — they might be eager to be invited to the negotiating table, while expats want to be part of building the table. In this way, I think the idea of ​​representation is very different across the diaspora.”

Adds Devi, “The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, and when you come from that background and environment, you don’t see the injustices that happen in the diaspora and in Hollywood. So [the ‘RRR’ team] He was thrilled to win an Oscar – and rightly so.”

Davey says representation is very important to expats.

“We see inequality in major industries in America, and what it does is reinforce the idea that South Asians are aliens living on the other side of the world, that they are not part of the culture and history of Hollywood and the United States, which is not true. South Asians have been in Hollywood, For many years they were either forced into roles that were too small or forced into hiding [altogether]. So, to try to minimize that, in an era where we’ve seen a lot of steps – that’s a problem.”