This post was originally published on our partner website India.com:
Fourteen seasons, millions of auditions, and millions of viewers—and yet, not once has “American Idol” produced a South Asian winner, let alone a contestant to make it to the top three.
In these 14 years, we’ve really only seen two South Asian finalists perform onstage for our votes and neither was able to develop a strong enough fan base. In fact, one of them became notoriously known as a bad contestant (sorry, Sanjaya). But this year, the final year of “American Idol,” could change that forever with the audition of Sonika Vaid, our new, favorite brown girl.
Vaid auditioned on “American Idol’s” season premiere last week, coming from Massachusetts to Colorado with hopes of becoming the next big music sensation. While her voice may not appear to be as powerful as past winners such as Kelly Clarkson, Jordin Sparks or Adam Lambert, she does have a hugely positive quality for the competition: she can easily improve as the weeks progress.
Now that might sound like an insult, but it most certainly is not. While there have been many music contestants who are consistently great throughout their run on their respective shows (Jordan Smith’s most recent win on NBC’s “The Voice” comes to mind), others who have shown that they are willing to learn and grow from the process of competing actually do better in the competition. We want to see a success story develop every episode—as viewers, we are more likely to become invested in someone whose hard work shows week to week, and we’re more likely to keep tuning in to see how much better they continue to get.
It’s already clear that Vaid has a beautiful voice—it’s strong, but not too overpowering. She has range but doesn’t overuse it, and she has heart but doesn’t overperform. Her audition song, Carrie Underwood’s “Look At Me,” both accurately showed her potential and was a smart move—using a slightly lesser known song from Underwood’s repertoire showed Vaid’s musical prowess and her attention to American Idol alums.
What Vaid can show the judges now is how much she can do with that voice. Can she give us variety in Hollywood? Will she show the judges and audiences that she is vocally and musically creative enough to take a song, flip it on its head and make it her own? That’s the kind of knowledge and passion for music that the judges (and we at home) want to see.
Think back to some of the artists who have won “American Idol” in the past: David Cook knew how to make a song his own; Adam Lambert couldn’t help but get creative with music week after week after week; and even past finalists like Jennifer Hudson (who unfairly lost the title) and Casey Abrams used their voice to own a record, even if it was iconic already.
Can Vaid prove herself worthy in that way and continue to show her sweet, passionate personality in her performances? Only time will tell. If she can get creative and improve with each performance, Vaid could just become America’s final Idol.
We’re rooting for you, Sonika! Rock the stage!<3
Born in Texas, went to college in Missouri and now living in New York City, Keertana Sastry has a unique perspective on being Indian in different parts of America. Keertana has been working as both an entertainment, culture and lifestyle reporter, as well as a casting assistant for the film and TV industry. She loves to infuse her Indian heritage into her work and life.
“Naatu Naatu” is one of the most memorable sequences from S.S. Rajamouli’s epic action-drama “RRR,” and has assisted the Telugu-language blockbuster in becoming one of the highest-grossing films at the worldwide box office. With music by M.M. Keeravani and lyrics by Chandrabose, “Naatu Naatu” is a celebration of regional music, dance, national identity, and male friendship.
But long before the song began collecting its accolades, its infectious tune and fast-step dance, performed vigorously by N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, became a viral sensation outside of the film. It’s now the first song in a movie from India to be nominated for an Oscar and also to have won a Golden Globe.
When asked about the song’s ripple effect across the world, Keervani remarked,
For us — the musicians and artists — social media is very powerful, because of the internet and reachability. Nowadays, globally, anything that is different by nature, anything that is innovative, a little innovative, will catch instant attention.
It all started with a TikTok dance challenge where thousands of fans mimicked the dizzying hook step, choreographed by Prem Rakshith, garnering hundreds of millions of views, and making the song a bonafide global phenomenon. Today, the official YouTube video has well over 123 million views.
While the science behind why certain songs have a higher virality is widely debated, Keeravani attributes a large part to the song’s instant connection with the masses to its unusual 6/8 time signature, taken from carnatic music — which he believes is “inherently encoded in the human body.”
For non musicians, he vocally percusses the rhythm, “thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha.”
[This beat] will give you instant energy. Like suppose, you’re going low on sugar. So there are things like instant energy boosters; like you consume some aerated drink or a cup of coffee with sugar. And instantly your energy is boosted. So six, eight will give you an instant feeling to get up, create some steps and dance. There is a swing in the beat. So you will react to that beat — involuntarily you will react.
Before Keeravani wrote the music for “Naatu Naatu,” Chandrabose was given the challenging task to pen the lyrics to this rhythm. Continuing a long-standing collaboration that began 29 years ago, Chandrabose has co-written over 400 songs with Keeravani, including this iconic title track — his only co-write on “RRR.”
Regionality played a significant role in the composition.
Ram comes from Andhra and Bheem comes from Telangana. Both dialects are different; the slang is different. So, there is a challenge to write both slangs in one song. Everybody should understand those words. That is the challenge.
Chandrabose explained how he needed to appropriately incorporate the various dialects from the regions the primary characters were from, and reflect colloquialisms from 100 years ago, when the film’s story takes place, that is also recognizable to present-day listeners.
In [the lyric] ‘Yerrajonna rottelona mirapathokku kalipinattu’ (which translates roughly to “like eating a jowar roti with a chili” in English), ‘thokku’ means pickly, like mango pickle. In Andhra, it is known as ‘pachadi’ and in Telangana, it is known as ‘thokku.’ So, everyone can relate and connect [to] that word. And since ‘thokku’ belongs to Telangana, that line is sung by Bheem.
The original Telugu version of “Naatu Naatu” was also dubbed and released across a variety regional Indian languages, including, “Naacho Naacho” in Hindi, “Naattu Koothu” in Tamil, “Halli Naatu” in Kannada, and “Karinthol” in Malayalam, and has collectively been streamed over 92 million times on Spotify.
Chandrabose remarks that he envisioned the lyrics to 90 percent of the song in half a day, but it took about 19 more months to finalize the song in its entirety. This was in great part due to the time spent on researching the dialects and finalizing each word to the overall ethos of the song. Rajamouli had given strict direction that the song should authentically be about one’s nature, their culture and countryside, and be universally respectful.
When asked about how they scaled this process across the other five language releases, Keeravani recalled that they had to prioritize lip sync.
Since it’s a dance number, there is a combination of close shots and long shots. So the long shots are spared, but in the close shots, they need to be as close to the Telugu lyric, I mean, lip wise.
He added that the writing team had to make some concessions,
There will be a certain amount of compromise in the meaning of the lyric. But that is inevitable. As long as the song is conveying its main essence, it has no problem.
Culturally, India has a rich history of celebrating songwriters, composers, and music directors in cinema. However, this recognition does not always translate to credit and compensation. For example, “Naatu Naatu” was extraordinarily successful on TikTok, but TikTok isn’t available in India, creating complex monetization adversities. It’s especially important to understand that India’s non-bollywood and independent music market has a nascent publishing infrastructure and is traditionally known to have a work-for-hire payment model where song contributors are not offered royalties.
Speaking optimistically to changing times, Chandrabose shared,
I’m getting royalty from past 12 years (from performing rights societies IPRS in India and PRS in the U.K.).
He explained that, especially with viral songs, some songwriters and composers have only limited careers in the “limelight,” but “after 10 to 15 years, they cannot get more work and they cannot get money.” He speaks to songwriting royalties as a key to retirement for the next generation of song makers.
So, at that time they will receive these IPRS royalties as their pension to meet their needs. They will get these amounts in their old age that will help them a lot.
Upon concluding our chat with Chandrabose and Keeravani, we marveled at the amount of progress that has happened for independent and non-hindi language music communities around the world. The virality of “Naatu Naatu” is a testament to the musical prowess out of South Asia, but also challenges the Western notion that Indian music is narrowly defined by belonging in the catchall ‘world music’ category, or the sounds of the sitar and tabla, or a lightbulb-twisting Bhangra club-hit wonder, or, if nothing else, then Bollywood — all in large part exclusively North Indian. Unfortunately, this distinctly important nuance still plagues Western media and major music institutions.
Recently during a Songwriters Hall of Fame conversation with Oscar-nominated songwriters, Paul Williams incorrectly introduced “Naatu Naatu,” as “the first Hindi-language song ever nominated for an Oscar,” which is spliced with not one, but two errors — not only misidentifying the language but ignoring A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho!,” a Hindi song which was nominated and won in 2009 for the same category. As South Asian artists around the world begin to traverse into global markets, we hope to see more Western entities taking the time to research, hire South Asian contributors, and execute due diligence to minimize inaccuracies and cultural erasure.
“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.
We’re rounding up all the latest South Asian entertainment news so you don’t have to. With the rise of representation in media, South Asians are making strides and we’re all for celebrating the highs. Brown Girl Magazine’sentertainment editors Aysha and Arun have compiled a list of the all that grabbed headlines in the first half of the year, so you can still be in the loop without having to stop and search elsewhere. From the latest movie buzz to must-watch live and animated shows, we are covering it all.
Here’s a round-up of some of this year’s highlights:
Star Wars Joins the Brown Side, It Must
Yoda approves this one. After wowing us with Ms. Marvel and breaking glass ceilings while doing so, Academy Award-winning and International Emmy Award-winning director and journalist, the one and only badass Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has once again proved that she’s a force to reckon with! Chinoy is set to be not only the first Pakistani and South Asian, but the first person of color, and the first woman to direct a “Star Wars” film.
“Spider-Man, Spider-Man…” if you don’t know what song we’re referring to, you better pause and run to YouTube and check it out.
The multiverse, with virtually an infinite number of heroes, couldn’t exist without South Asian representation. Insert, Pavitr Prabhakar hailing from Earth-50101. Like Peter Parker, Prabhakar grew up under the care of his aunt and uncle. Despite living in poverty, Prabhakar’s intelligence earned him a scholarship that — with additional support from his family — allowed him to attend an illustrious school in Mumbai. Similar to Parker’s story right? He even has an MJ in his life: Meera Jain, instead of Mary Jane.
He first debuted in the Spider-Man: India (2004) comic book series, but became a household name after being featured in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Voiced by Karan Soni in English and Shubman Gill in Hindi, the character is set to return in the film’s 2024 sequel.
South Asians are finally making their way into the Marvel universe and this is only the beginning.
Season four of the much-awaited “Never Have I Ever” came to an end filled with tears and hope, this past summer. Devi proved she can have it all (spoiler alert ahead) — a boy and her dream Ivy League college Princeton. Being a desi kid growing up, many of us also dreamt of being accepted into a school our parents could rave about to their family friends, so to see Devi’s applications rejected was refreshing and much-needed. Much thanks to Mindy Kaling and her co-producer Lang Fisher for keeping it real and showing growth with each of the characters. Seeing both the widows on the show, Nalini and Pati, make room for love and dating gave us more of an incentive to indulge in the show.
Women in Showbiz Everywhere (WISE) Hosted its First Ever ‘Hues of Heritage’ Event Celebrating South Asians in Film & Television in mid-August with actor Bill Moseley and Executive Director of CAPE Michelle Sugihara. The Hi-Tea Affair brought together South Asian creatives, writers, journalists, and other industry members, fostering inspiring and supportive conversations. The event also marked the launch of the esteemed RATNA fellowship, which Vineesha Arora-Sarin, founder & executive director of WISE, terms as a “movement dedicated to identifying and supporting emerging South Asian female writers worldwide who aspire to make their mark in the global entertainment industry.
And what better time to launch it than now when we’re going through a major cultural and a much-needed revolution in Hollywood to give writers and creators fair play as we speak.” The fellowship will select five writers from South Asia (including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others) and the diaspora to join a one-year program and collaborate on a project alongside talented mentors. Read more about the fellowship here.
It was not something we grew up imagining as South Asians in America; children of immigrants who are often sidelined. But it happened! History was made as a considerable line-up of South Asian artists including Ali Sethi and Jai Wolf took center stage at Coachella. The highlight though, was Diljit Dosanjh’s power-packed performance that sent fans into a frenzy, enough to keep the security on their toes! It was the first time an Indian Punjabi singer performed at the event and we’d say it was about time.
Iconic song “Naatu Naatu” from the blockbuster movie “RRR” not only made history as the first ever song selected from an Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar but by also winning it, beating the likes of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. While the Oscar performance was disappointing — featuring predominantly ‘white’ ensemble of dancers, instead of the thousands of Indians who could’ve done a far better job and made more sense — this win is big for the South Asian community as a whole!
Pakistan filled with Joy as “Joyland” Made it on Academy Awards Shortlist
Pakistani film “Joyland” is the country’s first-ever film to be shortlisted for the Academy Awards. While it had a long run, it did not receive a nomination for the Oscars as expected. It was among 15 films that made the cut for the best international feature film. The critically-acclaimed film breaks stigmas by showcasing a stereotypical patriarchal family that craves for the birth of a baby boy— but with twists. Without any spoilers, this film is a must-watch for dismantling and challenging a host of patriarchal and discriminatory norms that continue to plague South Asian culture.
From “Indian Matchmaking” to Indian Idol-ing: Sima Taparia
Love or hate her, everyone has an opinion about internet sensation Sima Taparia. And with the end of season three, there’s still more to talk about Taparia’s new wedding or shadi song: “Shadi ki Tayaree Hai.”
The song follows Taparia attending a wedding while singing, dancing, and encouraging you to have a wedding of your own. And she’s not alone; her husband Anup Taparia is also singing and dancing. People are calling the song as entertaining as her show! Do with that what you must, but check out the song available to watch on YouTube.
An adaption of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Life of Pi” musical is not only the first Broadway play with a majority South Asian cast but the first to win three Tony awards.
Dubbed as Broadway’s most diverse show right, “Life of Pi” won Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Play. Not to mention the musical is the Broadway debut of three Olivier Award-winning performers. With more than 20 puppeteers, the show takes you through Pi’s journey of survival.
After almost 15 years in development, “Monsoon Wedding” has made storms in New York’s theater scene. An off-Broadway production that ran all through the summer, “Monsoon Wedding” is an adaption of the iconic film that released in 2001.
We laughed, we cried, we sang as Mira Nair had us “literally dipped in the vat of stunning classical Indian singing.”
A show fit for anyone, as each character depicts varying shades of a personality, “Monsoon Wedding” breaks stereotypes, confronts stigmas, and reminds us of the importance of family.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Brings Home Four Awards
Shekhar Kapur and Jemima Khan’s romantic comedy “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” won four awards at the United Kingdom’s National Film Awards, including best screenplay, best British film, best director and best supporting actor.
Khan, the screenwriter and producer of the movie, won the award for Best Screenplay. Asim Chaudhry’s performance won the movie Best Supporting Actor and Kapur won the Best Director award and the Best British Film award.
In another historic win for India, “The Elephant Whisperers” became the first Indian documentary to win an Oscar. Winning Best Documentary Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards, the film touches upon the relationship between animals and their caretakers. It follows the story of an indigenous couple named Bomman and Bellie who care for an orphaned baby elephant.
The film was directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga. Sharing the news of the win on Instagram, Monga noted how two women brought home this historic award.
”Tonight is historic as this is the first-ever Oscar for an Indian production. India’s Glory with 2 women.”
Record Number of South Asians Invited to Join The Academy
The Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts announced their list of 398 new members invited to join them. Among the prestigious names are also Indian film celebrities Ram Charan, Mani Ratnam, Karan Johar, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Chandrabose and MM Keeravani. As members of The Academy, they will be eligible to vote for the 96th Academy Awards which will be held in March 2024.
Be on the lookout for our next roundup as the year comes to a close!
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix