The Best Movies of the Year: RRR’s “Naatu Naatu” Gave Us 2022’s Best Dance Scene

Movies Features best of 2022
The Best Movies of the Year: RRR’s “Naatu Naatu” Gave Us 2022’s Best Dance Scene

Did you notice all the dancing in 2022’s films? It’s okay if you didn’t. We seem to be in a perpetual state of Too Many Movies, and not everyone enjoys them in the same circles as those on the lookout for trends. But in order to miss all the dancing scenes in 2022 movies, you would have to have missed Aftersun, Fresh, Morbius, Official Competition, The Son, Dual, Turning Red, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Crimes of the Future, After Yang, White Noise, Matilda, X and Don’t Worry Darling—and even if you didn’t see any of these, all the discussion, celebration and mockery of these purposely very noticeable dance scenes would have to have passed you by too.

A comprehensive collation or ranking of 2022’s dancing is complicated by the vast range of boogying offered. Is it a big choreographed number, one that signals not a diegetic performance but an overflowing of emotions that stylistically breaks the observable reality of the drama, like in a musical—as is what happens in White Noise and Matilda? Is it choreographed but diegetic, where we infer that characters have practiced and are now explicitly performing it, like the K-pop inspired family dance battle in After Yang or the Earman’s art piece in Crimes of the Future? Or is this a spontaneous externalization of complicated feelings that also happens within the text, but here meaning is to be inferred by an unplanned, disorganized submission to movement, as happens at crucial turning points in Aftersun or X? Or is it whatever the hell Harry Styles does for two minutes straight in Don’t Worry Darling? (Why won’t the boy stop spinning?!)

Another lens that complicates a Holistic Dance Appraisal is that a lot of these dance scenes feel a bit calculated. Everyone loves a dance scene; it’s quirky and exciting to watch our favorite actors bust a move, and like any act of performance they can be used to express something complex in a dialogue-free and fun way. But we’ve reached a point where filmmakers now know everyone loves dance scenes—the longevity of audiences praising and sharing the memorable dances of Ex Machina and Another Round proved they were an asset worth investing in.

But in some cases, it’s quite clear that studios and directors are capitalizing on this goodwill with easy and not particularly thoughtful explosions of dance that don’t just feel out of place, they feel manipulative. Dance scenes become crutches for unimaginative stories to insist they have an identity, ultimately feeling like cloying attempts to elicit audience approval. It’s why the best dance scene of 2022 inherently has nothing to do with this recent Western trend, and has a lot to say about films that half-ass their dance scenes instead of giving something truly transcendent.

The runaway hit of 2022 is probably RRR, an Indian historical action epic coming from Tollywood, the Telugu market of Indian cinema. For the unbaptized: In the 1920 British Raj, two future Indian revolutionaries—tribal guardian Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Imperial officer Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan)—foster a close friendship. Over an explosive three-hour-plus runtime, the highlight comes in what Raju dubs the “naatu” dance: While appearing at a British party, our heroes are branded philistines for not knowing any sophisticated Western dances, and so break out into a fiercely choreographed Tollywood dance number to put the British in their rightful place.

Movies like RRR and the bombastic output of Hindi, Telugu and Tamil film industries treat musical numbers with little of the snark and shades of embarrassment that a lot of Western filmmakers regard them with. They are liberally and earnestly used, as important as the action and dramatic aspects, and often are used in harmony with them. Preposterous scenes bolster and strengthen the low-key ones, revealing layers of characterization and supercharging conflicts to explosive degrees. This is exactly why RRR’s “Naatu Naatu” number is so irresistible; it’s not just a technical achievement and powerful entertainment, it’s pure storytelling. Structured across four-and-a-half minutes, conflict is escalated and crystalized; drama, emotion and spectacle are all presented in thundering synchronicity.

The shoulder rolls, the arm pumps, the enviable and extensively tutored hook step—the Naatu dance is a miracle of dynamic and exciting choreography. While not a dance historically carried out in the 1920 British Raj, pretty much all its constituent parts come from the rich tradition of Tollywood and broader Indian dance. The two friends shift from showing up the officious Brit Jake (Eduard Buhac) to losing themselves in giddy, confident joy at performing together. It’s a joy that’s infectious: Despite the protestations of Jake and the rest of the white men, Bheem and Raju convince all the white women present (including Bheem’s crush), and like all good Freytag pyramids of rising action, this forces the British men to join for an ill-advised but thrilling dance off.

As Bheem and Raju’s expressions turn from joyful smugness to fierce determination, you feel the stakes rise—made all the more gripping by them predictably being the last two in the dance. As they kick up sand and thrust their arms downward, there’s an overwhelming kinetic weight to their moves, as their political rivalry manifests in something that may just appear a game, but feels life or death. There is none of Fresh’s TikTok-ready, manufactured dance moves; none of Morbius’ pathetic swipes at virality. There is only pure performance and energy, a sincere and magnificent display of the emotional potential dance scenes can offer.

It is, however, disingenuous to claim that RRR is responding to or even aware of the micro-wave of dance scenes in Western and Hollywood movies. How can they even be compared when on-screen dancing means something fundamentally different in each culture? The wealth of English-language examples all possess a self-awareness (ranging from slight to obtrusively obvious) of how out-of-place and trendy their breaking out into dance is in their respective dance-free stories. RRR shows nothing but sincere and shining pride as its technical prowess and showmanship dazzle the audience. It’s proved relentlessly successful, with waves of English-speaking audiences expressing profound admiration, but to even group the Naatu dance alongside Hollywood ones is an act of appropriation, as if to say, “We are claiming this as something in conversation with our own inferior examples.” It is an authentically Western move to see something culturally unique and consider it to be for our own purposes.

And yet, while the Naatu dance scene is certainly not adding to the ongoing dance scene craze, it clearly intends to say something about white cultural ownership. The film is brazenly anti-colonialist (and, more troublingly, nationalist) and most scenes serve as a counterpoint to the blatant and ugly racism of British occupiers—with the Naatu scene as a clear example of Indian dominance. Jake mocks Bheem and Raju’s cultural knowledge, becomes visibly frustrated at their prowess and protests that their moves are unsavory, before reluctantly summoning his fellow Brits to try to out-dance them—with Bheem and Raju leaving them in their dust the whole time. The scene is a retaliation to Britain’s cultural suppression of India throughout the occupation, executed through a universal multicultural truth: White people can’t dance.

In a year packed with white characters dancing in pointedly goofy, self-aware and attention-grabbing fashions, RRR feels less like a response and more of a universal truth—attention-worthy beyond the mere appearance of dance. It has a different remit, a different target audience; it originates in a completely different artistic market with its own storytelling context and influences, but it feels as if the contrasting approaches to dance in Western and Indian cinema are being commented on. Sincere enthusiasm and technical accomplishment will always be the victor over minor, inauthentic uses. If you’re going to dance, pull your goddamn socks up and dance. RRR is not playing Hollywood’s game, and yet it directly reminds us how easily it could win if it tried.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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