For India’s Oscar nominees, awards season has brought excitement, triumph and no doubt regular bouts of jet lag as they hop from one distant time zone to another. The South Asian country has seen three of its films earn Academy recognition — All That Breathes (Best Documentary Feature), The Elephant Whisperers (Best Documentary Short), and RRR (Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu”). First-time nominees involved in those projects have found themselves on a road trip adventure split between luncheons, screenings, Q&As and more screenings.
“To begin with, it’s crazy. I think it’s extremely overwhelming, but it’s such a beautiful journey and absolutely surreal,” exhales Kartiki Gonsalves, director of The Elephant Whisperers, a film about an Indigenous couple in Tamil Nadu who care for orphaned pachyderms. “This is my first documentary… I have to admit, it’s a bit scary. And I’m not usually a person who’s in front of the camera or talking in a whole lot of interviews. So that part is something I’m getting used to now, slowly.”
The “Naatu Naatu” song creators, composer M.M. Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose, are managing to keep their feet on the ground. Keeravani tells Deadline, “We are just going with the flow and just experiencing everything because it’s a first of a kind for us [an Oscar nomination], and we are enjoying every bit of it.”
In the calendar of events leading up to Oscar Sunday, perhaps the most significant is the Oscar Luncheon, which took place at the Beverly Hilton on February 13, an official celebration to which all nominees are invited.
Director Shaunak Sen, usually composed and centered, soared with pride – like the majestic black kites in his film All That Breathes – when he spoke with us immediately following the luncheon. “During the roll call of the films, I was genuinely elated. I thought I’d be a cool cat about it, but I really wasn’t. I was quite overwhelmed and elated, honestly. The last time we spoke, I hadn’t fully processed the sheer scaler jump in life in terms of the nomination. Now, I’m beginning to sort of live with it better, but today [at the luncheon] was a real spike. It was a real adrenaline high.”
Sharing her experience at the juncheon, Gonsalves says, “It was such a special feeling to be at such a wonderful event surrounded by the best in the industry. We were personally welcomed so warmly by Janet Yang, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was special.”
Sen and Gonsalves say it felt surreal to interact with Hollywood icons in the flesh.
“It’s not often that you occupy the same room and rub shoulders with Spielberg and Tom Cruise, and that’s not a mundane, everyday thing for most people in the world, I imagine. And at any rate, not for me,” Sen says, recalling another cherished encounter at the luncheon. “Colin Farrell told me that he saw [All That Breathes] and that he really loved it, which felt like a thing I had to work hard to fully wrap my head around.”
Gonsalves was equally ecstatic, saying, “I was blown away by getting a chance to meet Steven Spielberg; he congratulated me on getting nominated for my debut film and was proud that I stuck it out for five and a half years making it. Austin Butler! What can I say? Such a gem – the sweetest, most humble, talented actor, he went for rounds to the tables to meet and greet everyone.”
Deadline reported Tuesday that “Naatu Naatu” will be performed at the Oscar ceremony, by singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava. The song is one of the centerpieces of the three-hour-long RRR, sparkling with a massive dance number. Keeravani and Chandrabose say they didn’t anticipate the global fandom for “Naatu Naatu.”
“Honestly, it came as a total surprise, pleasant surprise package – a gift,” say the duo. Keeravani explains some of the challenges behind the composition, noting, “Musically speaking, of course, Mr. Chandrabose had given wonderful lyrics for the song, and he also came up with multiple options. But the thing was to get it ‘okayed’ by the director [S.S. Rajamouli]. Seven musical notes are rearranged for every song, but 56 letters are in the Telegu language [heard in the film]. How do you sync this up between two hands, two limbs, and one head to a dance? That’s when my assistant, who happens to be my elder son, Kaala Bhairava, took the song for additional programming and arrangement and created a nice piece for the dance, which is a non-stop loop. Everything clicked into place when this [non-stop loop] was added.”
Recognition from the Academy is triggering many professional offers for the nominees.
“There have been a lot of requests on what I should do now… People have even asked me to go into fiction,” says Gonsalves with a laugh. “I think the nominations just opened a whole lot of doors and opportunities on many fronts. It’s overwhelming to decide at this point because I still have my entire heart and soul in The Elephant Whisperers at this stage. It’s a gradual progression that one has to go through.”
Sen is taking it slow, trying to catch his breath with All That Breathes. “I get more inquiries, obviously, but no, I haven’t really had the mind space to sit down and decide what I want to do next.”
Chandrabose and Keeravani – already celebrated and revered artisans in the South Indian film industry – sound a cautious note about their next project. “Our bond [working relationship] has been for 28 years, and so whatever we create in the next six months, after this… all eyes will be on us,” stresses Chandrabose. “We should be very alert and careful regarding whatever we create and give to [the] audience.”
For the nominees, this time is all about basking in the fruits of hard-earned success, attending events and awards functions before the Oscars on March 12, and making it through the other side.
“When you come to places like this [Los Angeles], there are so many people around you and so much support and love and wonderful conversations about life and the movies,” says Gonsalves. “We’ve had a whole bunch of get-togethers and meeting people from the industry, which has been special.”
Sen, summing up the mood of this historic moment for the Indian Oscar nominees, signs off: “It feels like a general celebratory time – a big warm hug, so it’s great that way.”
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