Human Rhythm: The team behind ‘Naatu Naatu’ on hook stepping to the Oscars

Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. play dance battle besties in RRR.
Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. play dance battle besties in RRR.

The performers and creative team of RRR lift the curtain on their Oscar-nominated hit song, their long-lasting friendship and what it takes to hook step.

With the final stretch towards the Oscars feeling more like a crawl than a sprint, it’s a relief that some folks are still raring to go. RRR star Ram Charan recently revealed to us that he and his co-star N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (known as Jr. NTR) will happily do the hook step from the euphoric Best Original Song nominee ‘Naatu Naatu’, written by composer M. M. Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose—as long as they’re invited.

Charan hopped on a call with me a few weeks back to talk Valentine’s crushes, thirsty Letterboxd reviews, and of course, the global sensation that RRR has become. He only thinks it’ll feel real once he lands in LA in a couple of weeks time, to get ready for the Academy Awards. “We would love to do ‘Naatu Naatu’ anywhere that we are being appreciated, but not every place accommodates us to perform,” Charan says. “But if we’re at the Oscars and there’s a request, and there’s time, why not? We’ll be more than happy to entertain our audience, who have given us so much. To do the whole number on the stage would be difficult, as it takes a lot of breath and energy. But definitely the hook step. Why not!”

Accommodations may just be possible: Academy CEO Bill Kramer assured our awards podcast Best in Show the other week that Best Original Song performers are “going to be on stage at the Oscars if this all works out.” As Rihanna recently confirmed she’ll be performing her nominated song ‘Lift Me Up’ from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, we’re ready to start getting our hopes up about potentially seeing Charan and Jr. NTR dancing across the Dolby Theatre.

On the most recent episode of Best in Show, Chandrabose tells us that ‘Naatu Naatu’ took 45 minutes followed by many long months to write. He explains that the first 90% flowed like water, as he identifies more with Jr. NTR’s character Komaram Bheem. Keeravani, on the other hand, is more of a Raju, Charan’s role—both were raised in the same villages as the RRR characters. “These two guys come from different Telugu states: Raju from Andhra, Bheem from Telangana,” says Chandrabose. “I belong to Telangana and Keeravani here belongs to Andhra, so he is Raju, I'm Bheem!” But then, of course, came the pandemic—even though there was more time at home, production shutdowns and shooting delays meant the remaining 10% was a little tricky.

The idea of home is essential to the understanding and appreciation of ‘Naatu Naatu’, a term often misunderstood online since the song picked up more attention. Chandrabose says the word speaks to “primitive” ideas: “Country, native, rural, village, rustic, ethnic.” He suggests it could be defined as “an Indigenous thing, the countryside” adding that “village-side things can be defined as ‘Naatu’.” It’s quite a different definition than the rumor swirling around the internet that the translation of the title is simply “Dance Dance”, and one that much better speaks to the genesis of the song in symbiosis with the story. “The word first came into my mind after Rajamouli narrated the story and asked me to write for the situation,” the lyricist explains.

Charan and Jr. NTR will most certainly need stamina, energy and sustenance to potentially pull ‘Naatu Naatu’ off live at the Oscars. 
Charan and Jr. NTR will most certainly need stamina, energy and sustenance to potentially pull ‘Naatu Naatu’ off live at the Oscars. 

Still, ‘Naatu Naatu’ would be nothing without its beloved hook step dance move and the very specific rhythm that allowed it to exist. The song is written in 6/8—where more simple songs opt for 4/4 or 3/4, which Keeravani calls “human speed” —⁠and gave Chandrabose a great writing challenge. “When a human is walking, he or she won’t be comfortable walking in two, four. That is the four count,” the composer explains. “You have two legs to walk when the beat happens. This beat cannot be 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. You try to walk thinking about 1, 2, 3, 4, you feel uncomfortable. But when you walk 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3, you feel very comfortable. That’s the comforting walk.”

A comforting walk is necessary to keep pace with the intensity that ‘Naatu Naatu’ demands, says Keeravani. “I don’t mean to say that 2/4 is unfit for dancing, but in 6/8 you feel more comfortable. When you feel more comfortable, you have more scope to bring more stamina, energy and sustenance to the song. That’s what is required.”

There’s no debating that such strict requirements have paid off beyond belief—‘Naatu Naatu’ is going to the Oscars already a Golden Globe winner. When Keeravani and Chandrabose won the award, there was only one way to celebrate: a touching nod to their friendship, an ode to their roots. Keeravani’s gift to Chandrabose was a rendition of the first song the pair wrote together, for a television show 29 years ago, sung over the phone. “I wrote one small jingly song for TV, that I wrote for Keeravani all those years ago,” Chandrabose says. “I called him to congratulate him on ‘Naatu Naatu’ and he sang to me.” It is, Keeravani says, “the song of our first ever association.” The long-time friends are soon to make even more memories in Hollywood, where they’ll celebrate their latest association at the Oscars on March 12.

RRR’ is streaming on Netflix and Zee5. On March 3 it will be re-released in over 200 US theaters as part of ‘The RRR Fan CelebRRRation’. Check your local cinema guides for one-off theatrical screenings.

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