As if producing Hollywood's biggest night weren't a tall enough task, the 95th Oscars presented producer Raj Kapoor with a unique challenge: Translating one of the most instantly-iconic song and dance numbers in cinema history for the Oscars stage. But for Kapoor, producing the live performance of "Naatu Naatu" — the history-making, Oscar-winning Best Original Song from RRR — made this year's ceremony that much more special.
"I was born in New Delhi, India, and took extreme pride in helping shape the live performance of 'Naatu Naatu,'" the producer said following Sunday's ceremony. "The song's Oscar nomination was a historic moment for Indian cinema, and I wanted to make sure that the show took extra care in collaborating with the creators of the original song."
When composer M.M. Keeravaani and lyricist Chandrabose won the Oscar for Best Original Song, "Naatu Naatu" became the first song from an Indian film to do so. Before that historic moment, playback singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava took the stage at the Dolby Theater alongside a dance troupe — including dancers cast as leads Komaram Bheem and A. Rama Raju (played in the movie by N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, respectively) — for a high-energy rendition of the blockbuster's standout musical sequence.
Kapoor, who began his career as a choreographer and dancer, has been working on the Oscars since 2017, with the 95th Oscars marking his seventh ceremony. (He is also a three-time Emmy nominee for his work on the Grammys and Emmy winner for executive producing 2021’s Adele: One Night Only.) Below, Kapoor opens up about the responsibility of honoring RRR, and the global effort from Hollywood and Tollywood to pull it off.
A.frame: Can you tell us what it meant to you to bring this performance to the Oscars stage?
This performance was extremely personal to me since India is my birthplace. Growing up watching Indian movies but never having the opportunity to have worked professionally on an Indian film project, I felt a deeper calling to honor this very special film. My father passed away in late July of 2022 and he was always so extremely proud anytime there was some notable achievement of a person from India that made the news. His sense of pride was indicative of how proud people in India are when South Asian artists are celebrated on a global platform. I just knew that we had to put together an outstanding team on both sides of the globe to pull this off in a very short amount of time. I really wanted it to be a love letter to Bollywood/Tollywood musicals, the people of India, and the global impact of dance.
This live performance was a huge production, can you share with us how it came together?
We were extremely proud to have worked side by side with the film's creative team to help shape the "Naatu Naatu" performance for the Oscars stage. During our first creative call, we spoke with the film's public relations team, Karthikeya [Rajamouli], the film's producers, and composer M.M. Keeravaani. As soon as the nomination was announced, we asked for the involvement of choreographer Prem Rakshith since the choreography is so iconic to the impact of this musical number.
Originally, the two leads were going to be the stars of the number alongside the singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava. The show was very instrumental in helping secure working visas for their team to be able to come to the U.S. to be a part of the performance.
Prem and his assistant provided a video breakdown of the audition choreography, which we sent out to the biggest dance agencies in Los Angeles. Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo, known as Nappytabs, were brought in to help stage the number and shape it for television using the original choreography from the movie. Once we had the musical edit approved by M.M. Keeravaani, we did late night Zoom calls with the choreography team in India and Los Angeles. We shared casting choices, costume design ideas, and stage renderings with the team from India.
In late February, we were informed that Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. would be attending the Oscars, but they did not feel comfortable performing the live number on stage. The change was brought on because of their other professional commitments and the limited amount of time to rehearse. The original number was workshopped and rehearsed for two months and was shot over a period of 15 days. The "Naatu Naatu" performance for the Oscars was rehearsed in Los Angeles with professional dancers for a total of 18 hours of rehearsal and one 90-minute camera blocking.
Can you share any insights into the casting process?
At its core, the "Naatu Naatu" song in the film references when a crowd of non-Indians join in on a dance with a pair of Indian individuals, showing the universality of the music, the energy, and the art form itself. While the original film sequence features about 50 dancers that are mainly Caucasian, we decided that our cast of 20 supporting dancers would be diverse and from all different backgrounds. Global audiences fell in love with "Naatu Naatu" and were dancing in theaters around the world, so we wanted to be open to any ethnicity to help honor the global impact of this song, and to celebrate that universal, unifying power of music and dancing.
At the same time, we wanted to be authentic to the film and to honor Indian culture, which is why the film's producers, choreographers, leads and singers were approached from the very beginning and involved in our decision making. Knowing that the two leads were unable to be involved, we worked in collaboration with Prem, our team in India, and our team in the U.S. to find two lead characters who captured the infectious energy of the characters in the film and their over-the-top energetic dance skills.
After weeks of preparation, how did it feel to watch the live performance?
I was bursting with pride. The number delivered on everything that we had hoped for. The impact of an amazing song paired with some of the most dynamic and original choreography to have ever graced the stage of the Oscars. I believe that "Naatu Naatu" will go down in Oscars history as one of the best dance numbers ever and really hope that we are able to submit Prem, Tabitha and Napoleon for consideration for Outstanding Choreography for the Emmys later this year. It is certainly so well-deserved and shows what happens when people from all over the world come together to create a special moment that will not soon be forgotten.