If anyone was ever able to calculate the number of musical sequences that occur in film in the classic movie-musical tradition, the Indian film industry would almost surely be responsible for a plurality of them each year. But having an Indian songwriter nominated for a best song Oscar? That last happened in 2008, when A. R. Rahman and lyricist Gulzar won for a song from the cross-cultural hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” directed by Danny Boyle. The last time it occurred with a song from a movie that truly emerged from out of Indian film culture? Never. And that’s one reason why there’s such a rooting interest in the prospects of the shortlisted song “Naatu Naatu,” from “RRR,” on top of the tune’s Golden Globe nod: the opportunity for representation.
But it’s not close to being the main reason the song has such a vociferous cheerleading squad in the U.S. That would be the sheer enjoyment of it, as the musical number that comes about a third of the way into the three-hour picture is a dance sequence that is being almost universally recognized as one of the most exhilarating scenes anyone experienced at the movies in 2022, globally. That kind of enthusiasm is auguring for the song to be less a dark horse than one of the frontrunners for the final five slots, if not even the win. If this year’s song contest were to mirror the actual dance-off sequence in “RRR,” we might picture some of the other candidates slowly dropping out from the sheer exhaustion of keeping up with the year’s most obvious movie-music adrenaline blast.
“I did not guess there would be this kind of response for this song, even in my dreams,” says composer M.M. Keeravani, who co-wrote the number with lyricist Chandrabose. “But as a paradoxical statement, it’s a dream coming true.”
The “RRR” filmmaking team has TikTok to thank, in part, not just for the global popularity of the song but how homemade clips set to “Naatu Naatu” propelled the movie’s U.S. domestic box-off success right out of the gate. Well before the film’s theatrical opening, TikTok users had latched onto a short clip of lead actors Ram Charan and N. T. Rama Rao Jr. doing the peculiar dance step that characterizes the choreography and attempting their own versions of it.
“When I envisioned the ‘Naatu Naatu’ song,” says director S. S. Rajamouli, “while both of them (the actors) are great dancers, I didn’t want the steps to be so complicated that people can’t do it. It should be like any two people — whether it be friends, mother and daughter, father and son, two brothers or two sisters — would see it and feel like, ‘Let’s try this.’ And they did; millions and millions of people were trying to do the steps and posting on it. It became such a big phenomenon when we released the song, and it clearly (increased) public interest in the film.”
Keeravani says the beat has a great deal to do with the popularity — although it’s so fast that, like videography of a hummingbird’s wings, you almost have to slow it down to recognize it. “The beat is 6/8 — that’s not very frequently heard from the West, but more frequently heard from India and sometimes from Africa and countries like that,” says the composer. “To be precise, it’s even a South Indian kind of beat, not so much North Indian. And in ‘Naatu Naatu,’ this beat took another dimension and another level of BPM (beats per minute) which is very rarely heard in the West. So that’s what primarily got the attention of the Western audience.” He also points to his singers: “I picked Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava to do justice to this melody and they gave their best. That’s why the song is what it is now.”
It’s been reported that Keeravani wrote 20 different songs for Rajamouli to choose from just for that sequence. He’s not positive of the real number, but after working with the director on every single one of his films — 12 over a 20-year period — Keeravani is happy to provide him with plenty of possible picks. It comes naturally, anyway. “Some artists find it very difficult to come up with a second alternative. But I’m used to it because, thanks to my father, who made me do some hard work on constantly generating tunes when I was a child. I’m used to generating tunes like child’s play. So that’s what makes my job easy when the director asks for options for a song. With this particular song, ‘Naatu Naatu,’ I think I lost count, but I composed 10, 15, maybe 20 various tunes for this song.”
He will admit it’s not even the favorite of the six songs that are part of the “RRR” soundtrack, with the other five being less exuberant, more emotional numbers. “Let me be clear here: ‘Naatu Naatu’ is, of course, my favorite song to watch. With my eyes closed, I don’t think that I’m going to enjoy it as much. If it’s with my eyes closed, my favorite song is the background song I used as a central theme of the movie: That is ‘Janani,’ a song about mother and motherland, that goes like this…” He proceeds to sing part of it over a Zoom call — not a huge stretch, since that is the one song he sings himself on the film’s soundtrack.
Director Rajamouli says that even before he set his constant musical collaborator to work on it, he puzzled over just how he would fit the joyful song he was envisioning into a movie that, for all its classic Hollywood-style action bravura, has such serious cultural context, dealing with the brutality of colonizers in an earlier era of India. “For any other film, it would be easier, but here, even though it’s a fictional account, I’m telling the audience that these two people are essentially real freedom fighters. But luckily, I essentially saw this as an action sequence, not a dance sequence, and made it a competition. By the time the song starts, we already want Rama being to do something to beat those (British bad) guys,” and taking them on with his friend in a dance competition is a light foreshadowing of more intense battles to come. “So I think the biggest achievement for me was incorporating how the song comes into the film, without breaking the narrative. Because it is a film that deals with a lot of atrocities, and so you have to be careful with how you introduce the more frivolous moments.”
Says the composer: “The ‘Naatu Naatu’ song has to make you forget everything — and not just the viewer who is watching the movie, but the characters from the story, too, need to forget every other thing happening around them and pay their full attention towards the song. And the coda, the end part of the song, consists of so much stamina, you cannot call it merely a song — it is an action sequence.” An action sequence that, by the end, TikTok users can no longer recreate in their homes but will still watch in happy exhaustion.
You might think Keeravani himself would be exhausted after scoring 420 films over the 33 years he’s been doing this. He comes close to acknowledging that before saying the international acclaim for his “RRR” songs and score has invigorated him. “This recognition makes me feel altogether young again,” he says. “I feel inspired and I’m motivated now again. After working for 33 years, most people drift away and they look for a different job, because after all, you need to try different things in your life. But this gives me some motivation and energy again to continue in music, maybe trying new styles and exploring new horizons.”
When Variety spoke with Keeravani via Zoom, he was at home, about to come over to L.A. to do some FYC appearances — including one at the Chinese Theatre with his director and stars, all together in America for the first time. “I think I’m going to be on constantly on cloud nine the next few weeks,” he said.
He elaborated about what the song means to all of them. “Let me express something here: I said every other song (in ‘RRR’) is an emotional song, except ‘Naatu Naatu.’ But because of the attention and recognition it brought to me and the ‘RRR’ team, you can call ‘Naatu Naatu’ an emotional song— not for the world, but for the team.”