‘Naatu Naatu’ and The Great Indian Song-and-Dance Routine

Songs in commercial movies were once looked down upon for being ‘massy’, but now it’s the song that’s won Indian cinema an Oscar
‘Naatu Naatu’ and The Great Indian Song-and-Dance Routine

When Ashutosh Gowariker’s period sports drama Lagaan (2001) lost the race for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category, many in India blamed it on the fact that the film was full of songs. Of its lengthy runtime of 224 minutes, 41.58 minutes are taken up by the eight songs composed by AR Rahman. Fast forward to 2023, and “Naatu Naatu” from SS Rajamouli’s Telugu historical fiction film RRR (2022) not only has the world on its feet, it’s also brought home a highly-coveted Oscar, beating international superstars like Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. 

Composed by MM Keeravani and written by Chandrabose, ‘Naatu Naatu’ is quintessentially Indian – from the energetic folk beats to the tradition of two male heroes bromancing on screen, and the context out of which the song emerges in the narrative. Is the world finally falling in love with the unique song-and-dance format of Indian commercial cinema that was a butt of mockery and criticised for being extravagant, unrealistic and distracting? How does this impact the film industry at a time when Indian filmmakers are commended for ‘daring’ to do away with songs in their films?

Professor Uma Vangal, dean at the International Institute of Film and Culture, said the song sequence has evolved as an integral part of Indian cinema because it was viewed as an extension of existing oral and performing traditions. “Song and dance played a very crucial role in these arts narratively to bridge gaps in time and space, introduce characters and so on. So, when cinema came in and we wanted to subsume all of our performing traditions under a new and larger format, the song and dance travelled to this medium too,” she said, pointing out that music has always played a key role in the Indian way of life. 

The first Indian film with sound, Alam Ara (1931), featured as many as seven songs. In a country of such complex diversity, Indian film music has often demonstrated the ability to cross linguistic barriers. The lyrics might be occasionally massacred — netizens are still debating what the Malayalam words in ‘Jiya Jale’ from Dil Se (1998) mean — but the beat stays in people’s hearts. Singer Srinivas, who has sung over 2,000 songs in various languages including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, noted that very often, the songs of a film outlast the relevance of its story. “In Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018), watch how Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal) uses old Hindi songs to motivate his son (Ranbir Kapoor). The songs are still able to strike a chord with audiences watching the film decades after they came out,” he said. 

The Tamil romance film 96 (2018) is another film where an old song plays an important role in the plot. Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) is forever trying to get his childhood sweetheart Janaki (Trisha) to sing ‘Yamunai Aatrile’ from Thalapathi (1991) but she never obliges him – not until a power cut, when she suddenly decides to sing it in the darkness. The effect is immense because along with Ram, the audience too has been waiting eagerly for Janaki to sing the old favourite. 

In India, a film’s music has the power to decide its fate at the box office, and that’s a trend that has persisted across decades. Actor Kunchacko Boban’s Nna Thaan Case Kodu (2022) is a courtroom drama about a thief who decides to sue a minister over a pothole on the road. While the film only features two original songs, the remix version of ‘Devadoothar Padi’ from an old Malayalam movie that has Boban dancing to it, became an internet sensation. The virality of the song was among the reasons attributed to the small budget film making over Rs 50 crore at the box office. 

“An appealing song can bring people to watch a film on the first day of its release,” acknowledged Boban. However, he added that songs should be included in a film only if there is a context for it. “I’ve been lucky to do so many movies with very good songs and dances in my career. But I’ve also done movies like the thriller Anjaam Paathiraa (2020) which didn’t have any songs. It depends on the film that we’re making – if songs are needed at all, if the actors should lip sync to it and so on,” he said.  

The modern perception that a song in a film only acts as a speed breaker and doesn’t serve any purpose is a rather ignorant view of its place in the history of Indian cinema. Be it Telugu filmmaker K Viswanath who made films like Siri Siri Muvva (1976) and Sankarabharanam (1980) where music was integral to the story or Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray who used Rabindra Sangeet effectively in The Postmaster (1961), the medium of the song has been used to communicate a wide range of information, from lifestyle to moral dilemmas, Vangal said. 

“For a long time, Western media and scholars projected Indian cinema as just song and dance. They also tried to box it into a certain category of the musical, in the way that the Western world understands the genre. They found the films lacking because they didn’t get why characters who had nothing to do with music or dance were singing and dancing,” she explained. 

Calling this an “oriental perspective” on Indian cinema, Vangal added that the Indian media played into such ideas without setting the record straight. When Lagaan was nominated for the Academy Awards in 2002, however, the understanding of Indian cinema’s use of songs in the narrative began to change in the West. It also helped that scholars and film professors like Vangal who went abroad to teach in film schools broadened the discourse on Indian cinema in these countries.

Closer home, Srinivas is convinced that it is film music that truly brings recognition to talented musicians in India. “There are many brilliant composers who might be idolised by a niche audience, but it is the vehicle of film music that’s really made them who they are,” he said. “We also have to remember that the film song is an institution in India – there are so many people behind it. The producer, director, choreographer, music director, singers, stars who carry the song. That’s why it’s so huge in India.” 

The popularity of a song, therefore, doesn’t just rest on its musical quality. “I might have sung many beautiful songs, but it was ‘Minsara Poove’ from Padayappa (1999), which I sang for Rajinikanth, that many people recall. It gave a great boost to my career,” said Srinivas.

It’s not that contemporary filmmakers – young and old –  have completely moved away from the song and dance format. Many like Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Hindi), Mani Ratnam (Tamil), Shankar (Tamil), Sekhar Kammula (Telugu) and so on, still use songs as a big draw for their films. Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Malayalam coming-of-age film Hridayam (2022) had 15 songs – an unheard of number in this day and age. From travelling to remote corners of the world to building extravagant sets and splurging on exotic costumes, many Indian films still harbour a fondness for songs. But the eagerness to imitate Western films and win approval from an international audience might have led young and upcoming filmmakers to view the song as a liability that they’re forced to include in the film. 

The growing popularity of Indian mainstream cinema in the West, however,  may soon upturn this. Kunchacko Boban said that in the last two or three years, he has observed a massive change in how Indian movies are perceived globally, especially content-driven films from the south that have disrupted preconceived notions about Indian cinema. “RRR has done wonders for the Indian film industry, particularly when it comes to the song. We’re not trying to copy or remake foreign language films now. We’re doing original films that express our own native culture, and can be placed globally. The results are showing,” said Boban. And that's precisely what 'Naatu Naatu' is all about. 

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