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The Oscar for 'Naatu Naatu' fans the impossible dreams of India's musicians

Art school students in Mumbai finish up a painting of Indian actors N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (left) and Ram Charan of the movie <em>RRR</em>, whose dance song "Naatu Naatu" became the first song from an Indian film to win an Oscar.
Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images
Art school students in Mumbai finish up a painting of Indian actors N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (left) and Ram Charan of the movie RRR, whose dance song "Naatu Naatu" became the first song from an Indian film to win an Oscar.

"Do you know naatu? If you don't, you're about to!"

That's how Bollywood star Deepika Padukone introduced the energetic live performance of the foot-tapping Oscar-nominated song "Naatu Naatu" from the global blockbuster movie RRR at the live ceremony on Sunday night.

"Naatu Naatu" means "raw" or "rustic" in the local language of Telugu, spoken by some 81 million in southeastern India. The song shot to viral global fame on TikTok and Instagram. And last night, it won the Oscar.

They're cheering the victory in India.

For Samuel Kadhiravel, a 30-year-old rapper in Chennai, India, known by his stage name Mc Valluvar, that moment held a special magic. "It was incredibly exciting to see an Indian musical get worldwide recognition," he says. "It made me hope that things would change for independent musicians too."

Bann Chakraborty, a Mumbai-based composer, says the win will help musicians gain more confidence. "RRR's win should inspire all Indian musicians to be better at what we do. This Oscar recognition will certainly open doors for the world to know more about Indian music," he says.

And because the movie itself comes not from India's famed Bollywood film industry but from South Indian cinema, there was additional optimism. "Wins like 'Naatu Naatu' put us on the world map, which is so fantastic," says Berty Ashley, a musician in Bengaluru, and co-founder of OriginalDog along with Navin Dorai. It's a platform to help independent artists from low-income communities get a foot in the door of show business.

But will the win bring more visibility – and opportunity — for Indian musicians?

That, says Ashley, is not likely going to be the case. Independent Indian musicians have ideas and creative energy, he says, but lack the funds for basic equipment and travel expenses for performances.

Such frustrations, he says, are driving Indian musicians to embrace rap and hip-hop: "It's a fantastic genre to vent anger, frustration. And all you need is a backing track which you can find free online." And you don't need pricey equipment. "You can record the verse over your phone," he says.

Kadhiravel himself grew up in TP Chatram, a slum in Chennai in a 10 x 10 square foot home. His mother worked as a cleaner, his father did tailoring on a street corner to make ends meet. Their son dreamed of music.

He loved making up lyrics and rapping them to his friends, but he didn't even know that what he was doing was rap until a friend introduced him to the genre.

"People like me don't usually dare to dream of a career in music," Kadhiravel says. His boyhood neighborhood was known for sex, drugs and violence. Grinding poverty forced him to drop out of school in his final year – he says he just could not concentrate.

He would later go on to get a diploma in design, which is far cheaper than going to college.

But he also had formed a band called "Thara Local Pasanga" (Really Local Boys) – five slum boys rapping about their lives. In 2014, They released their first album. The video album was shot entirely on a friend's GoPro.

The album garnered 50,000 global views and some people even recognized the rappers. He seemed to be living his dream, composing and rapping the lyrics to 50 popular songs. TV and radio channels were hungry for the content, he says – but they paid very poorly. Unless a musician had a high number of page views, he would earn Rs 4,000 ($50) or less for an original song. And to promote his music, he would need to hire a production team—a video editor, a make-up artist, sound and lighting.

"Poor musicians are forced to sell their original content to bigger companies for peanuts because they cannot afford these production costs," he says. "Big labels pay very little, and sometimes I make only half of what I invested."

There are days when he's had to take on many a part time gig to keep afloat. Back in 2014, after the release of his first album, he was painting a house. During a break, while covered in dust and paint, he strolled over to a tea shop. A young boy who sauntered in, said he looked like his "favorite rapper from Thara Local Boys" and wanted to take his picture.

The irony wasn't lost on Kadhiravel. "People think musicians have glamorous lives. In many cases, we're driven by passion and just looking to survive," he says.

That lack of resources for talented musicians drove Berty Ashley and Navin Dorai to found OriginalDog. "We spoke to hundreds of artists and found that funding and marketing was their main issue," says Dorai. With an investor who was an ex-musician, their platform launched 60 albums and 243 artists in the last year, producing tracks and covering costs.

Very few musicians make it to India's film industry, where there is potential for glory and big bucks, says Vi Anand, a filmmaker based in the Southern Indian city of Hyderabad who makes films in the Telugu language. No one talks about the struggle musicians face, he says — the many years where you run after a dream in spite of financial, social and family pressures.

"A lot is lost," he says. "But this win will inspire and continue to inspire. Sometimes that's all the fuel a dreamer needs."

For musicians like Kadhiravel, an Oscar isn't the ultimate goal. His parents were never angry with him for not earning a more substantial living. "They would be occasionally annoyed" by his devotion to making music "but always are supportive," he says.

"The day when I earn enough from my music to feed my parents three square meals, when I can ask them to quit their labor intensive jobs and put a roof over their heads, that would be as precious as an Oscar to me," he says. "That's when I'd know I've truly won with my music."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t

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Kamala Thiagarajan