It’s rare for a Calgary-born entertainer to be able to push around late night host Jimmy Kimmel.
But 15 minutes into the 95th Academy Awards, that’s just what Billy Mustapha was doing as a preview for his performance dancing to what would be the Oscar-winning song Naatu Naatu.
“Pushing Jimmy Kimmel was a moment I will never forget,” Mustapha told Global News from Los Angeles. “He was hilarious and told us to really push him, so it was fun to surprise him with unexpected shoves in all directions.”
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Dressed in a blue shirt and grey suit, Mustapha was one of two principal dancers representing the main characters in the number from RRR, a 2022 Indian epic action drama film.
“It was insane. The feeling that my heart was just pounding in my chest (as) the elevator was lifting up – I knew all the people in the audience were starting to see me and just being like, ‘I got this.’ Reminding myself, ‘This is what I trained my whole life for.’”
Mustapha grew up in Calgary and started dancing at seven years old. But it took some work to find the artistic expression that would end up placing him centre stage in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
“My family was very big on, ‘You need to have something.’ My mom always was like, ‘You need to do something,’” he recalls.
“I have two brothers, and we did hockey and soccer and kickboxing and wrestling and like all of the things. And I went to watch my sister’s dance recital and I was like, ‘Mom, I want to do that.’ And in full support she was like, ‘Let’s sign you up right away.’ So she signed me up at Dance Spectrum.”
A musical theatre class was his entry into dance, and under the support and tutelage of Amanda Sturrock, Mustapha quickly immersed himself in all the offerings at the local dance school.
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Sturrock, or “Miss Amanda” as she is known to her students, watched the awards show in anticipation of seeing her former pupil, but not knowing just how he would show up on screen.
“When we saw him just jump right into the screen, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’” she recalls. “And then you could see him basically the whole performance, it was so amazing, it was so, so special to watch. I was crying.”
Sturrock recalls teaching Mustapha as a young boy, “having such a special little spirit, like a kind heart and a real sort of eagerness to learn.”
“I remember just being so happy that he stuck with it after that first year.”
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It was within the first years of instruction that Sturrock remembered seeing the start of something great in Mustapha, especially as he entered competitions.
Mustapha’s successes are serving as inspiration for aspiring dancers in the city.
“For the kids at our studio now, to show them all this is what Billy, this kid in the picture on the wall right here in this goofy recital costume — he went on to dance at the Oscars or he was in this music video,” Sturrock said.
“It’s nice for the kids to sort of relate to him and see what there is out there after being in the studio.”
The preparations and turnaround for the Sunday night performance were quick, with iterative rehearsals for the viral sensation dance beginning Tuesday in Los Angeles.
“You learn the base of the steps, and then you start to kind of put it in some staging and then hopefully are learning your lyrics (to lip sync) while that happens even if they’re in a language you don’t speak,” he recalled, adding it wasn’t until he got into the audition process that he became aware of the song.
“The song is such a banger, but the movie is so brilliant.”
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RRR became the first film from India and Asia to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song. It won the same award at the 80th Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 10, another first for an Indian film.
The Oscars performance came under fire for its casting, with dancers on stage not of South Asian descent.
Mustapha, a Lebanese-Canadian, said he believes in the importance of representation in the arts. And he struggled internally with the decision made by the casting department.
“To walk in that (audition) room and just not know what I’m stepping into, and then be told that I’m doing a specific role that is maybe not my ethnicity or maybe not the character that I truly am – it does happen a lot and it just comes down to casting and who they chose for the role,” he said.
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Mustapha would have loved to see more South Asian representation on stage as he danced alongside singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava.
“I was trying to show what they showed on camera, on stage.”
Monday morning, he was still buzzing from the performance in front of a theatre full of Hollywood’s stars.
“The celebration after completing that dance (to Naatu Naatu): it was triumphant, just because that dance is like running a sprint that feels like a marathon,” he said, noting the unpredictability that comes with live performances.
Mustapha isn’t new to dancing roles on television, with credits in shows like Once Upon a Time, Freaky Friday, 2019’s The Twilight Zone, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas. He made the silver screen last year as a dancer in A Cinderella Story: Starstruck.
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The spot on Once Upon a Time came shortly after Mustapha relocated to Vancouver, where he also found mentors in Moe Brody and Jillian Meyers.
Having also been featured in commercials for the soft drink Pepsi and been an assistant choreographer for an Apple commercial, Mustapha is “extremely happy” with where his career is. He’s eyeing as many roles in the entertainment industry as he can, including acting and touring with a musical artist.
“If I told my childhood self that I would be here right now, he would just be like through the moon and he wouldn’t even believe the things that I have gotten to accomplish.”
A nation celebrates RRR
The Oscar win for the song from RRR alongside the best documentary short win for The Elephant Whisperers caused an entire nation to celebrate.
“No words can describe this surreal moment. Dedicating this to all our amazing fans across the world. THANK YOU!!,” the Twitter account for RRR posted.
Television news showed images of people dancing to the song in the streets in India, minutes after the award was announced, even as #NaatuNaatu was a top trend on Twitter.
“The popularity of Naatu Naatu is global. It will be a song that will be remembered for years to come,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on Twitter, congratulating the team behind the song.
In the film, made in the South Indian language of Telugu, and directed by S.S. Rajamouli, Naatu Naatu begins when the two leads, played by Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr., flaunt their dance skills after being bullied as the only Indian people invited to a British party in colonial times.
When a young British man aims racist insults at the leads, they decide to educate him using the song Naatu Naatu.
During the scene, which was filmed at Ukraine’s grand Mariinskyi Palace, everyone at the party, including the scoffing British man, tries to master the moves.
At the Oscars, composer M.M. Keeravani burst into song while accepting the award on stage, along with songwriter Chandrabose.
–with files from Reuters