2 Months, 110 movements, 20 Rehearsal Days: Prem Rakshith on The Making of Oscar-Winning ‘Naatu Naatu’

“The performers at the Oscars were all from the US. We couldn't bring our guys from India because they did not get their visas on time,” says the dance master, who breaks down the song that took the world by a storm
2 Months, 110 movements, 20 Rehearsal Days: Prem Rakshith on The Making of Oscar-Winning ‘Naatu Naatu’

Choreographer Prem Rakshith is in utter disbelief. He reached Los Angeles on March 11 and got back to his home in Hyderabad on March 15. But in a matter of five days, Rakshith’s life as he knew it has changed. He witnessed his steps come to life at the iconic Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, walked the coveted red carpet, took a selfie with Rihanna (“She called me over to click a picture, can you believe it?) and saw ‘Naatu Naatu’ bag an Oscar. “Did we just win an Oscar? I keep asking myself this question,” the choreographer says over a phone call from Hyderabad. 

The MM Keervani composition created history this week by becoming one of the first Indian productions (along with The Elephant Whisperers) to win an Academy Award. The RRR song was also performed on stage to a thumping response and a standing ovation, which moved Prem and team to tears. “I was so happy when the performance got a standing ovation because it is one thing when your work is appreciated at your home. But when people recognise it world over, the feeling is something else,” says Prem, who was in touch with the dance master in the US who helped assemble the live performance. 

“The performers were all from the US. We couldn't bring our guys from India because they did not get their visas on time. I myself got my visa only on the 9th. So, I used to send videos and stuff from India to help with the choreography. When I reached there on the 11th and saw the rehearsals, I was bowled over by their energy.” 

While the song’s response at the Dolby Theatre seemed to soothe his nerves, Prem was still in trepidation, seated beside Ram Charan and Jr NTR during the ceremony. “I felt like a man at sea waiting to reach the shore. We were going up against amazing musicians like Lady Gaga and Rihanna. But the second the presenters uttered the word ‘RRR’, we all started screaming. Appo kaththa arambichadhu dhaan,” he recalls. 

A still from the live performance at the Oscars
A still from the live performance at the Oscars

Prem tells us that the suspender move from the song too was a moment of pure improvisation. “Rama (Rama Rajamouli) amma designed the clothes for the film. So, for the song, Bheem and Ram come to the function in coats. But we soon realised that the dance might not be visible if they were in coats. So, they removed their coats and I immediately noticed the suspenders. We dance masters always improvise with props. Be it a stick, a water bottle or a plate, we always like to dance with some form of support,” Prem recalls. 

But that doesn’t mean the entire process came together smoothly. The song took two months to crack, where Prem and team explored 110 different movements before whittling it down to four prime movements. “Stars would start filming at 6 in the morning and packed up by 6 in the evening. After that we would do rehearsals between 7 and 9 with Rajamouli sir, Tarak sir and Charan sir.” The choreography for Naatu Naatu couldn’t have been possible without his seven assistants (Sudhan, Vijay, Suresh, Mani, Ramya, Bala and Aravind), Prem insists. “Sudhan even broke his leg. Their efforts were unparalleled.”

SS Rajamouli sat down with Prem until they finalised the steps that would match the styles of its lead actors. “The most difficult part of the song was to get both of them to sync and dance in the same style. For instance, let's take singers SPB sir's voice and Mano sir's voice. Both their voice qualities are different. Similarly, heroes have their own unique style. So, to control their movement and get their style to sync was the most difficult.” 

The choreographer directs the praise entirely to the combination of Rajamouli, Keeravani and the actors. “I would call it magic, because I have choreographed so many songs. This is the first such song of mine that made this sort of a mark.” But the ultimate realisation of this madness was when his idol Prabhu Deva wished him. “I have worked with him under his group. So, I have always wanted to be like him. So, when he congratulated me on Twitter, I just broke down.” While recognition for choreographers has strengthened in the industry over the years, Prem hopes for the Academy, too, to award dance masters someday. 

Sitting in his house in Hyderabad today, Prem is overwhelmed about the win. But the win also brings with it another question. “I keep thinking ‘so, what next?’ Bayamadhan iruku (it is scary), but let’s go.”

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