By Chris Chekuri. Chris teaches History at San Francisco State University. He is a managing editor at Maidaanam.
పొలంగట్టు దుమ్ములోన పోట్లగిత్త దూకినట్టు పోలేరమ్మ జాతరలో పోతరాజు ఊగినట్టు కిర్రు సెప్పులేసుకొని, కర్రసాము సేసినట్టు మర్రిసెట్టు నీడలోన, కుర్రగుంపు కూడినట్టు ఎర్రజొన్న రొట్టెలోన, మిరపతొక్కు కలిపినట్టు
Like a raging bull prancing on a dusty farm Like Potaraju quivering in a Poleramma festival Like stick fighting in noisy raw-hide sandals Like young men gathering under the shadow of a banyan tree Like eating pickled chili with red millet bread
So begins the award-winning song “Naatu Naatu” from the global blockbuster Telugu movie RRR (2022). The lyrics to the song, by Chandrabose, and the sensual worlds it invokes offer a slice of agrarian life that intensifies the colonial encounter between the British and the Indians. Winning the Golden Globes award for “best song” and nominated for an Oscar in the “best original song” category, Naatu Naatu has been a resounding success across Indian and global audiences. The wild popularity of this song and the agrarian life worlds it conjures demands for a closer look.
Many have celebrated the film’s success as a sign of the arrival of Tollywood, Telugu cinema, on the global stage. Some have even likened it to the “soft power” of states in the international system. Observers have been quick to point to the many problems in the movie’s representation of indigenous adivasi communities. One notable criticism took issue with the characterization of Komaram Bheem, a revolutionary Gond leader from the 1930s, who was portrayed as naive to the ways of modernity. Most importantly, RRR is a product of a broader culture of silence that is reshaping Indian politics in our Hindutva times, and as such does more than its share of partaking in the signs.
Still, the success of this Telugu film worldwide deserves an explanation. It could be that the filmmakers decoded the marketing tools necessary to propel the film into the right distribution channels. It could also be that at the current moment, particularly in the United States, there is a receptivity to films that touch upon themes of colonial encounters. Wakanda Forever and Avatar, two popular Hollywood productions, have had good box office runs.
This essay seeks to reveal another layer of the film’s resonance – the vernacular poetics of Telugu – and calls for a fresh look into the landscape of Telugu popular culture.
Unlike the Hindi film industry, Telugu cinema is deeply embedded in the life worlds of the southern Indian States of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. This invites us to look into their media and political culture. Their regional Telugu life worlds have interwoven themselves quietly (and sometimes noisily) into the digital/technological interstices of the global economy.
Central to this insertion is the idea of “naatu,” as deployed in RRR’s hit song, and its reflection of deeper political and economic currents in the Telugu states.
A Tale of Two Chickens
In my childhood, the sight of warehouses on the outskirts of Hyderabad was such a novelty that passengers in the bus typically fell into a hushed silence upon encountering their sights and smells. Warehouses which were full of industrial chicken farms – producing broiler chicken – though a novelty for many, were soon available in neighborhood poultry shops across a growing city. The larger, fleshy broiler chicken soon replaced the smaller bony country chicken, kodi, in most people’s taste.
Fast forward into the new millennium. Menus in Hyderabad and the towns across the region now proudly market “naatu kodi” or country chicken to an ever more selective clientele. But the naatu kodi’s return is just the tip of the iceberg of a much broader phenomenon.
In the time that it took Hyderabad’s cuisines to move from the broiler chicken back to the naatu kodi, there has been a vast transformation afoot in the Telugu states, and for that matter in much of South India. That transformation can be encapsulated in the very emergence of the desire for naatu things.
The movement from kodi to broiler chicken to natu kodi is typical of many changes in modern Telugu. Much like the movement from the telephone to cell phone to eventually the landline, naatu kodi is a retronym—retrospectively named—in the aftermath of the broiler chicken. As in the English ‘snail mail’ or ‘analog watch,’ Telugu has produced many such retronyms but always with the adjective naatu to qualify the noun.
Thus we have naatu pogaku (sun dried as opposed to kiln dried tobacco), naatu gitta (native bull), naatu vittanalu (native seeds), naatu kaaya (native fruits), naatu sara (country liquor) and more. In each of these instances, the original and the native upon encountering the newer, imported form, is retrospectively qualified with the adjective naatu.
The practice seems to have been so recent in its origins (late 19th c), that many Telugu dictionaries fail to register its significance. But before its circulation as an adjective to make a retronym, naatu was a verb for ‘to take root,’ ‘to establish,’ ‘ to stabilize.’ Still today, the resonance of this old verb is in play in the form of natlu veyadam or to transplant in a paddy field.
Naatu, then, is an indigenous response to the arrival of/encounter with new things and a way of assimilating but also adjusting to a redrawing of linguistic, cultural, social, economic boundaries, one that produces a new landscape, perhaps even new subjectivities. And unlike their English counterparts, Telugu retronyms, particularly naatu, help draw lines in the encounters between the vernacular and the colonial, the national, the modern, and the global.
In essence, naatu is the sign of the vernacular, always already present and able to improvise in a changing world.
Telugu Diasporas and the Nostalgia for Naatu
In a culture and community dispersed across India and the world, the desire for naatu things gives rise to new forms of consumption, new tastes, and new adaptations that enchant life. Consider the boom in swagruha foods which offer local snacks, foods, and pickles that one could carry to far off Dubai or San Jose or Dallas to prolong the aftertaste of home weeks after leaving India. As the vast movement from Andhra and Telangana scaled up, a mobile Telugu-speaking world began to value naatu things even more.
As people from villages now move into Hyderabad, Warangal, Vijayawada and the rest of India, naatu has acquired a powerful meaning of home and belonging. And, in the same manner, as Telugus of a certain class and caste move about in the global information technology industry, this nostalgia for naatu grows into almost every arena of life from housing and cuisine to plant varieties and more.
This intense longing for land, village, family is now the mainstay of Telugu cinema and offers a new idiom for cultural and social life–a poetics of the vernacular, which is lost when Telugu films are dubbed into other languages.
In Hindi, for example, the use of ‘desi naach’ in place of the Telugu ‘naatu’ abandons many of these elements of caste and agrarian life. This poetics of the vernacular is not easily available in traditional print culture. However, it is widely dispersed in Telugu visual and social media realms worldwide.
But this Telugu nostalgia is also evident in the way the lyricist Chandrabose talks about Naatu Naatu. He notes that the world of this song is suffused with the aura of village life–its sights, sounds, tastes and implied histories. Chandrabose’s favored line in the song, and one that he often returns to in his interviews, is “jonna rotte lo mirapa thokku” or pickled chili with red millet bread. He sees this simple dish as a metaphor for the life worlds he wishes to conjure in the song.
Indeed, jonna rotte (sorghum or millet roti) and mirapa thokku (chile pickle) are potent symbols. They are a sign of the [caste/village] worlds which, in his words, evoke a life shaped [burdened?] by “financial condition” but marked by “confidence.” Both the confidence and the material difficulties capture an important element of the poetics of the vernacular.
For Telugu audiences, the imagined worlds of village deities such as Poleramma, dusty farms, noisy raw-hide sandals (kirruseppulu), and millet rotis (jonna rotte) are important objects in a material history of caste exploitation and region disparities. Most importantly, the poetics and politics of the vernacular are incomplete without an understanding of the material caste histories of objects like kirruseppulu and jonna rotte.
Vernacular poetics in the age of Digital Heteroglossia
Over the past decade, the Telugu language has undergone a serious transformation, wherein the position of its standard dialect has come undone. Dalit literary movements and the successful struggle for separate Telangana, among the many reasons for this change, have been critical in ushering in a multitude of dialects into the public sphere.
Two other developments, the rise of social media and the end of Telugu medium instruction, have further eroded the status of standard Telugu as based on the language of coastal Andhra. What felt like a restricted expressive space suddenly opened up for millions of young speakers of regional and caste dialects of Telugu.
This proliferation of dialects in literature, television, and on social media has led to a spurt of creative and cultural democratization. People now feel empowered to speak, produce content, and share the joy and pleasure of their many Telugu vernaculars. In the process, they found a space to be themselves or, if you will, to make their presence felt in new and entertaining ways.
This emerging heteroglossia has become the mainstay of the millennials in Hyderabad and the Telugu states. Young people find pleasure and joy in the always forming heteroglossia on social media and in personal spaces. There are now distinctive dialects from Adilabad, Karimnagar, Mahbubnagar, and Khammam in Telangana widely used and performed in digital and social spaces. And the same goes with districts in Andhra Pradesh.
To a large degree the success of KCR, the chief minister of Telangana, is attributable to his masterly deployment of a dialect which opened the space for millions of others to see themselves. These new dialects make it easy to bring in the life-worlds of new social groups previously marginalized under standard Telugu. Into this plurality, a multitude of caste and Adivasi dialects make their way so much so that the pleasure in speaking one’s dialect is not just in finding the self in the ordinary and the everyday but ultimately in laying a claim to the public sphere.
Examples of this abundance of dialects are everywhere in Telugu media and, as an industry dependent on mass appeal, Telugu cinema has been at the forefront of adopting the new dialects.
From the recently-made movie, Fidaa, with its distinctive use of profanity by a female character, and the Chittoor-Rayalaseema dialect of the film Pushpa, to the playful dialect performances of the Banjara news personality and singer Mangli, Telugu has become opened to an immensely heteroglossic and plural world of the many Telugu dialects.
Telugu’s boundaries are being redefined into a more hybrid language and more inclusive language of caste, Adivasi, and ‘district’ speeches. The language has also become more open to Urdu, as in KCR’s speeches, and to Kannada, Marathi, and Hindi.
What, then, might explain the immense popularity of the song Naatu Naatu and the movie RRR for Telugu audiences? For the increasingly heteroglossic world of Telugu audiences, the vernacular poetics of the song mirror the changes they see in their world. For them, naatu has come to define a response to a range of encounters with the outside world.
And, as they move from their places of their belonging, their longing for material and cultural spaces conjured through the word naatu is also intensified. The appeal to the rustic and the vernacular in words, sounds, and the images of a particular life world is at once liberating and pleasurable.
As the material histories of “red millet bread” and “noisy raw-hide sandals” show, Naatu Naatu also embraces its conditions of marginality. Telugu audiences see in “Naatu Naatu” something more than just the historical encounter between the vernacular and the European dance arts. As the British in the film claim the mantle of a cosmopolitan global heritage, and seek to degrade the locals as unworthy, Telugu audiences, who are now dispersed worldwide, see echoes of their own daily encounters with the outside.
This element of vernacular globality is more aptly captured in contemporary Telugu cinema and, unfortunately, overlooked by intellectuals in their hasty dismissal of the popular genre as “vulgar” and inaccurate.