May 20, 2024

Styles Of Dance

Dance Styles Unite in Harmony

A dance with elephants: What two Oscars for India mean in a world where art meets business

4 min read

It is a momentous occasion for India when it wins two Academy awards on the same day, one for a catchy street song that is not necessarily delightful to a country with classical music traditions that go back centuries, and the other for a documentary on the relationship between man and animal featuring the country’s mascot animal, the elephant. 

There are cheers all around but also some murmurs of protest at the fact that the Oscar for the best song has gone to “Naatu Naatu”, a gyrational tune that sounds a lot like the usual fare at an average Indian wedding dance. It doesn’t help that it is from the Telugu movie RRR that has turned history into kitsch by creating a fictional fantasy out of real people who lived in different times, with a nationalist agenda that sounds disturbingly jingoist. 

It all depends on who you are talking to. 

There are those who say that “Naatu Naatu” celebrates popular culture with its subaltern aesthetic in which simple rhythms make for great joy. There are others who chime in: “What the hell, if “Gangnam Style” can do it, why can’t India’s Average Jai enjoy his 15 minutes of global fame?” The foot-tapping South Korean global hit by rapper Psy had become the first song to get one billion views on YouTube. Why should Koreans have all the fun? So there. 

Discerning art lovers, however, will heave a sigh of relief at the fact the Oscars themselves are not necessarily in question. After all, The Elephant Whisperers, an elegant short documentary produced by Guneet Monga and made by Kartiki Gonsalves, ticks all the right boxes for those who lean to the left: A cute, environmentally-conscious documentary made by two women with no big-budget hype. You get the picture. 

So where does all that leave the Oscars? To get the answer you have to sit at the intersection of art and commerce, which is what the Academy awards are all about. 

It is easy to draw a parallel between the Oscar-winning “Naatu Naatu” and Sushmita Sen winning the Miss Universe contest in 1994 when India was barely three years into its economic reform programme and was being wooed as a huge consumer market. Those who said the pageant was a Western conspiracy to make Indians buy more facial creams and lipsticks are pretty close to the ones who would show hard numbers to show India as the juiciest market for digital music, given that populous China lives behind a digital Great Wall. 

They could well be right. The number of internet users in India is forecast to touch the one-billion mark this year, and that makes it about three times the population of the entire United States. With the number expected to hit 1.5 billion by 2040 and with the current GDP growth rate the fastest among major economies despite hiccups, the pull of the Indian market is undeniable. 

You don’t expect the global temple of capitalism and show business to miss all that, do you? 

It also helps that aggressive lobbying to build up market potential is part of the Oscar routine. Netflix last year had about 225 million subscribers worldwide and the Indian number was estimated at only five million. Cut-price offers to the bottom of the market pyramid by Netflix shows that Asia and particularly India are where it must tell Hollywood stories that appeal to Wall Street. 

Cynicism much? But you don’t make movies without an eye on the big chance. It costs money to produce grandiose flicks. Netflix, which has won six Oscars this year, is cut from the same cloth as Paramount and Fox. The studio system knows which market to go after and keeps a sensible eye on what the audiences there gyrate to. 

But then, this is not necessarily crass commerce. It could be a show of double-edged chutzpah by studios that know how to woo erudite middle-class living rooms and cut-price mass audiences alike. With platforms like Spotify, YouTube and Amazon Prime available to earn money from, Hollywood is digitally savvy in both cinema and music. Elephant-size studios and heavy-duty movie producers are well aware of what is likely to work. And where. 

Hollywood does have a soul and does search it sometimes. At least its Indie cousins do. It is a delight when American cinema turns the camera on itself, as it did in the 2008 satire titled What Just Happened in which Robert De Niro plays a Hollywood producer struggling with a perfectionist British director and trying to please money-minded studio executives as well. The film shows rather well the art-commerce tradeoffs and dilemmas in the show business as well as the conflict between American and French (Cannes festival) sensibilities. 

You can sum it all up with an aphorism: There is an art to marketing and there is a market for art. 

This is where we need to place the two Oscars India has won this year. If one song makes you dance to big money, the other should evoke tears of joy in la-di-da living rooms. It takes all kinds. 

Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer. 

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