RRR’s ‘Naatu Naatu’ and The Elephant Whisperers make history at the Oscars. Indian cinema must make the most of these wins
Indian cinema witnessed one of its biggest moments of glory on a global stage today when The Elephant Whisperers won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short and RRR’s song ‘Naatu Naatu’ won for Best Original Song. Both The Elephant Whisperers and RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) are Indian productions which tell stories deeply rooted in India and Indian culture. The Kartiki Gonsalves-directed The Elephant Whisperers is a heartwarming documentary about Bomman and Bellie, a couple belonging to an indigenous tribe in south India, who dedicatedly look after orphaned baby elephants named Raghu and Ammu, forging a family like no other. In contrast, SS Rajamouli-directed RRR is a grand cinematic tale that packs action, adventure, music and dance as it follows the friendship of two revolutionaries who fight the British in the 1920s.
When musician MM Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose received the coveted golden statuettes for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, it marked the culmination of the euphoria that ‘Naatu Naatu’, the grand song-and-dance sequence from RRR had kicked off. The song’s immense popularity — 124 million views on YouTube and counting — powered the RRR team’s tireless campaign, spearheaded by Rajamouli. This campaign acquired a special significance since the RRR team continued its efforts to bring home the coveted golden statuette even after being snubbed during India’s official selection made by the Film Federation of India (FFI) for the country’s official entry for the Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.
When the FFI chose the Pan Nalin-directed Chhello Show as India’s entry (Chhello Show was later shortlisted for the Academy Award), for a brief period it was feared that RRR’s Oscar campaign might be cut short. In the past, movies such as The Lunchbox (2013) and The Disciple (2020), could not sustain their Oscar campaign when they were not picked as India’s official entry in spite of receiving impressive international acclaim. Emboldened by the love and appreciation the Telugu-language RRR had received since its release abroad, the team submitted the film for Oscars nomination in 14 categories.
In spite of the incredible buzz generated by this big-screen period film, RRR made it to just one category — Best Original Song — in the final Oscar shortlist. That’s still a commendable feat since the Rajamouli directorial didn’t have official backing. RRR continued to make its presence felt in the award season with multiple wins, the most prominent being the Golden Globe Award for Best Song, five Hollywood Critics Association Awards and two Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. This kind of success for a mainstream Indian movie during the award season could change the way Indian filmmakers pursue international glory and recognition.
Recalling his pre-Oscar experience, Rahman (who won the Oscar in 2009 for Best Score in Slumdog Millionaire) in a social media post recalled feeling like a “gladiator” with everyone around cheering for him. Rajamouli and his team must have experienced similar emotions. With the Oscar win, what they have achieved is unprecedented. They have also acquainted the foreign audience with older works of Rajamouli, which were re-released and sought out by film lovers. Will this lead to the audience discovering other popular Indian movies? That is possible if their maker can find a way to capitalise on this momentum.
This momentum was not created by RRR alone. The Shaunak Sen-directed All That Breathes was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Film category of the 95th Academy Awards while The Elephant Whisperers, produced by Guneet Monga and Achin Jain, was a frontrunner for the award in the Best Documentary Short Film category. All That Breathes follows two brothers who have dedicated their lives to protecting the Black Kite in a Delhi battling pollution as well as a changing social fabric.
Never before has India had three productions nominated at the Academy Awards — besides an Indian celebrity presenter, actor Deepika Padukone — in the same year. This is enough to evoke a sense of euphoria among film lovers in the country. In the run-up to the award ceremony, the details of special dinners and parties attended by the nominees only sharpened that feeling. The awards have also put the spotlight on Indian talents as well as the country’s unique storytelling traditions. This attention is something Indian creators can capitalise on. Online streaming services have blurred geographical barriers, with titles from one part of the world available in others. However, efforts should be made to draw the audience beyond the diaspora to the theatres to watch Indian films. These Oscars also present the perfect opportunity to showcase Indian documentaries, which tell powerful stories. For the second year in a row, an Indian documentary was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film. Last year, Writing with Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, too was nominated in the same category.
Since the Academy Awards has been batting for diversity, finding representation on the Oscar stage might now be easier for Indian talents but the road ahead is challenging. The stories and storytelling that India creates have to be riveting and well-produced enough to capture the popular imagination. Since Hollywood biggies including James Cameron and Steven Spielberg have expressed an interest in Rajamouli’s work, perhaps we can expect some exciting collaborations in future.