A few months ago, I had written my take on the movie RRR after just my first time watching it in a movie theatre. Now that the movie is available to stream online, I have had the opportunity to rewatch it more than a few times. However, the point of this essay is not an add-on to the previous one on the topic. This one is specifically about the marked shift in the way Indian movies have presented themselves & the land they come from. Growing up in Andhra Pradesh, there has always been a growling dissatisfaction that the movies made in my native language & the songs composed in it were not of a great quality, although in hindsight my parents can say they’re going through a revival. In 2015, a new epoch of Telugu films was heralded with Bahubali-1. There was a gradual upward tick in progress, but the newspapers back then remarked that even the likes of S S Rajamouli could not escape the fact that a movie needed an item song. Women had to be skimpily clad while dancing to very suggestive music. Although in his defense, the song in Bahubali-1 was woven into the story & the events that transpire through the song are critical to how the story progresses.
For the first time in Bahubali, the characters had names that were quite close to nativity & stepped aside from the usual names used for kings & queens. A new step forward in film-making, but I wasn’t sure how far that would go. Since 2015, the number of high quality production feature films that have come out as opposed to the ones before 2015 didn’t seem like a mere correlation. Bahubali set the precedent that movie-goers are smart people & can perceive the quality in production. Fortunately, it doesn’t stop there. RRR was a total revelation in terms of what a movie meant to Telugu people for a good 30 or 40 years. The movie had two male leads. There was no romantic duet in some far-off foreign locale. The story wasn’t one of an urban setting. It wasn’t a preachy patriotic film either. It was a simple story of 2 characters. I won’t go into much detail here. After watching the movie & coming back home, the music of the movie didn’t quite stick to me as much. At least, that’s what I thought of it at that time. This was still before I got acquainted with the other versions of the songs in other languages. One song’s rendition in other languages left me the most disappointed for missing out the point entirely.
The song is “Naatu Naatu”. Although by now the internet is swarming with videos across the world of people trying to replicate the hook step, I am more interested in the lyrics themselves. The premise of the song is very important as it reveals the nature of why the song is that way. In the movie, Bheem is invited to a party of the Englishmen & Raju accompanies him there. Although Bheem & Raju are both impeccably dressed in double-breasted suits, their skin is still inappropriate among the white-skinned people there. Without missing a beat, this is pointed out by one man who considers himself the best dancer in many forms of European styles of dance such as Flamenco, Foxtrot, Salsa and so on. While showing off his various skills, he is also quick to point out that whatever he knows is elegant & whatever the brown men do is pure savagery & filthy. Instead of revealing what a great culture they come from and all its long heritage to list, the two leads Bheem & Raju sing a song about why they love being the filthy savages they are. That’s precisely what the song Naatu Naatu means.
While growing up in a Telugu speaking part of India, I was told that quackery was “naatu vaidyam”. Vaidyam is the word for medicine, naatu roughly translates to crude or idiotic. In the rural parts of India, wild chicken or wild boar are also referred to as naatu meats. In that context, it also means something akin to being close to nature. In many ways more than one, the usage of the word is always slightly perjorative. To hear it as a response to a white man’s taunt in a movie about two freedom fighters’ stories is not what one would expect. All the previous outings of such patriotic films resort to mentioning what a great country India is and why the freedom fighter in question loved his/her nation. In this movie, the fact these two men love their country is a given. No explanation needs to be given. And hence, they hit back with what they do best. They sing a folk song about how naatu their life is. That is a response saying something to the effect of “Yes, I am a savage. What can you do about it?”.
The lyrics in Hindi make it a dance number where the Indians have mesmerised the British into dancing along with them. In Telugu, the song is a very quick-witted comeback to the comment of being called a “brown bastard”. These men have heard it enough that they were savages but instead of feeling bad about it, they hit back in a language that all humanity understood – humiliation through exhibition of superior skills. Loosely translated, the lyrics go thus.
Like a wild bull that jumped over the farm fence & raked the dust,
Like Potharaju danced at the Poleramma festival,
Like wearing wooden slippers & doing karra-saamu (this part to be explained below)
Like the young bloods taking shade under a banyan tree,
Like mixing the skin of a ripe chilli in a red millet roti,
Here is my crude & savage song. (Naatu Naatu)
Like the heart palpitates to the din of the drums around,
Like the eardrums burst to the song of the loud bird,
Like my finger snaps to the beat of the music,
Like my toes tap & rake the dust up,
Like my body sweats to the carefree dance I am doing,
Here is my crude & savage song.
Karra-saamu is a martial art of the Telugu people involving a long cane. Karra is a long stick, saamu is the art of wielding it. The activities in the song all allude to a rural life untarnished by western influence. It is much more than a dance number in the middle of the movie. It is a blood-boiling anger inducing song of total revolt and war against the oppressive British who saw the Indians as beneath them. Additionally, the song is a rather good ideal to adhere to when Indians are referred to as savages. Current public discourse is all about informing the British what a culture India has & why Indians are not savages. To be unapologetic in the face of someone feeling elitist, that’s one more way to shut the criticism that comes by. Trying to convince the other side we are the same as them is winning their approval. Raju & Bheem just don’t care through the movie that the Brits think less of them. That is a lesson we must learn as Indians today.
For a long time growing up, I was ashamed of being Indian. The patriotic movies of the yesteryear era often lost me on the point that the main character enlisted reasons to love their country. None of those points resonated with me. It was after Bahubali-1 that I realised there was something in the heritage of my country that I could fall in love with. RRR merely cemented that love & came at a crucial time for India in the world when the nation is ascending to the global stage as a major player in the world economy. Growing up, Indian-made products were considered low quality. Today, Indian products are at par with what the world makes. And in some cases, ostensibly superior in quality. Indians are lied to about the heritage of this nation. India has had a long industrious & illustrious history that is slowly being reclaimed. And it is being done in its own, dare I say, naatu way.