Three nominations in three different categories and two Oscars – all in all, an excellent year for India at the Academy Awards.

Academy members appear to have voted with their feet for Naatu Naatu from SS Rajamouli’s period epic RRR in the Music (Original Song) category. What makes the victory special is that unlike previous winner AR Rahman’s Jai Ho from British director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, Naatu Naatu (which means “local”) is an entirely homebrewed concoction.

Credit for the rambunctious song, composed by MM Keeravani and written by Chandrabose, must be shared with Rajamouli and choreographer Prem Rakshith, who got lead actors Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao Jr to dance up a storm. Rather than the tune alone, it was the entire package that propelled Naatu Naatu from TikTok trend to Oscar winner.

Naatu Naatu at the Oscars. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters.

The other big triumph for India was Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers, which picked up an Oscar in the Best Documentary (Short) category. History was made again here too: Gonsalves is the first Indian director to scoop a prize in this category as well as the first Indian ever to win in any directing category.

The Oscar is a second-time-lucky moment for producer Guneet Monga, who had previously co-produced the 2018 winner Period. End of Sentence.

Although Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes was bested by Navalny for the Documentary Feature Film award, its nomination alone represents progress for Indian filmmakers. The documentary draws links between Delhi’s toxic air pollution and the impact it is having on avian species with the efforts of a pair of Muslim bird-rescuing brothers to ride out growing Islamophobia.

There might have been a few more nominations for India if Academy voters had taken RRR more seriously. Despite taking massive strides on the awards circuit, the Telugu-language period drama was not nominated in any of the important filmmaking categories at the Oscars. Academy voters looking for a left-of-field pick did not find it in RRR’s comic book-level plotting, maximalist action set pieces and dodgy politics, but in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

RRR (2022).

The genre-bending film by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (who direct as “Daniels”) had elements that were missing in RRR: bravura visual imagination rooted in a larger conversation about topical themes – in this case, immigration, identity and a woman’s understanding of her place in the world.

Here was a film that as wholly original in its treatment while also representing massive progress for Asian and Asian-American talent in Hollywood. Everything Everywhere All at Once picked up seven Oscars – a remarkable feat for an under-the-radar production that worked purely on favourable word-of-mouth notices and critical appreciation.

The lack of additional nominations for RRR indicates that the Telugu film, about a pair of revolutionaries who team up against a cruel British governor, was not India’s answer to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or even Slumdog Millionaire. RRR might have been phantasmagorical fun for its Western fans, but there is no shortage of such Hollywood films vying for Oscars.

At one level, the oversight could be taken to mean that for Academy voters, mainstream Indian films are still mostly song-and-dance shows. Might the song-and-dance route show a way for Indian filmmakers to claw their way into other categories in the future? Given the talent of Indian filmmakers at shooting songs, might they henceforth target the Music (Original Song) category more assiduously?

A performance of Naatu Naatu at the 2023 Oscars. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters.

Despite its failure to land more than one nomination, RRR’s breakthrough cannot be underestimated. Rajamouli has impressed Hollywood directors and American critics of his filmmaking chops on his own terms, with a movie bankrolled entirely in India.

The breadth of coverage for Rajamouli and his actors in the American media indicates that the Telugu director is now a recognisable name in Hollywood – no mean feat. While arthouse Indian films usually get nominated for the Oscars, it is noteworthy that RRR – a typically Indian escapist fantasy – got where it did without making any concessions to international taste.

It’s impossible to predict if Rajamouli’s newfound fame in America will open the doors for future Indian films at the Oscars,. But he has, at the very least, proven that Indians are well suited to tell their own stories.

The nominations for All That Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers hold out both hope and caution. There is not shortage of brilliant Indian documentaries that are worthy of competing with the films that get Oscar nominations. What they don’t have are the resources to mount their films and then circulate them on the scale that was available to the documentaries that get the Academy’s attention.

The Elephant Whisperers (2022).

Like 2022’s Oscar nominee Writing With Fire, All That Breathes is an international co-production, which has benefitted from a non-Indian crew, wide exposure on the international film festival circuit, and the kind of financial backing that is typically unavailable to independent Indian productions.

The documentary is being streamed on HBO Max in the United States but has only be shown at film festivals in India thus far. The Elephant Whisperers, though, is available on Netflix.

One of the reasons that Indian documentaries don’t turn up on the Academy’s radar is that they are not deemed to have the mix of local detail and global appeal that works for Oscar voters. Simply put, the films make complete sense for their intended viewership but don’t pass the Oscar test of being rooted in a local milieu while also also relevant to Americans.

Many Indian documentary filmmakers simply steer clear of the minefield that is the international co-production. While this partnership can yield rich dividends in terms of exposure and recognition, it comes at a price: the material has to fine-tuned, and in many cases, dumbed down to be accessible to an international audience.

From that perspective, All That Breathes was a strong contender for the Oscar. The film dexterously tackles rising Islamophobia in India – a subject that is not alien to Americans – and has a highly polished aesthetic that helps it travel acros the world.

Blame it on Russia, whose military assault on Ukraine has sent economies in Europe and the United States into a tailspin. Daniel Roher’s Navalny is the kind of honourable, top-of-the-mind film that has gained added relevance purely because of geopolitical concerns.

Though it is a worthy portrait of the jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, the film is hardly as accomplished as its competitors, including All That Breathes and Laura Poitras’s Venice Film Festival winner All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, about American photographer Nan Goldin’s campaign to expose the horrors of America’s opioid crisis.

All That Breathes (2022).

Russia’s war on Ukraine also explained the attention showered on Edward Berger’s German-language All Quiet on the Western Front. The World War I-era drama, told through the experiences of a teenage soldier, won four Oscars, including International Feature Film.

In the end, Oscar voters turned their attention to what was happening in their backyard. But as Academy membership gets more diverse, and greater numbers of non-American actors and filmmakers are invited to vote for the Oscars, there is the possibility that the nominations will eventually get more variegated too. Perhaps nifty footwork is the key – as Naatu Naatu has proven.

Also read:

Everything Everywhere All At Once’ is Best Picture, two Oscars for India

‘The Elephant Whisperers’ is cuteness unlimited

The story behind the award-winning song ‘Naatu Naatu’ from ‘RRR’