Tara Subramaniam, CNN
The 95th Academy Awards were a major night for Asian representation on the silver screen with a series of milestones, including the first Asian woman to take a best actress gong and the first ever Oscar wins for Indian productions.
Michelle Yeoh made history with her role as Evelyn Quan Wang in “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which dominated by taking home a total of seven awards, including the Oscar for best picture and best supporting actor for co-star Ke Huy Quan.
Telegu-language historical fantasy film “RRR” became the first Indian feature film to win an Oscar with “Naatu Naatu” taking home the award for best original song.
And India also won another Oscar this year, with the award for best documentary short film going to “The Elephant Whisperers.”
‘Bringing this home’
Yeoh’s win makes her the first woman of Asian descent to win an Oscar for best actress and the second woman of color to receive the award. Actress Halle Berry, the only other woman of color to receive the best actress award, presented Yeoh with the Oscar.
She is also the first person of Asian descent to win in a lead acting category, the fifth person of Asian descent to win in any acting category and the first actress to win for portraying a Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese-speaking character.
The historical significance was not lost on Yeoh as she gave an impassioned and defiant acceptance speech.
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” she said holding her statue aloft.
Yeoh dedicated her award to her 84-year-old mother.
“I’m taking this home to her. She’s watching right now in Malaysia, KL, with my family and friends. I love you guys. I’m bringing this home to you,” she said.
Yeoh also thanked her “extended family in Hong Kong,” for “letting me stand on your shoulders, giving me a leg up so that I could be here today.”
Born in Ipoh, Malaysia, the actress got her start in a series of Hong Kong action films.
She rose to international fame after starring in the 1997 James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” and Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000.
Recently, she gained additional prominence for her roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi,” but “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was her first Oscar nomination.
Stunt director Jacky Yeung, 58, who worked with Yeoh on “Tomorrow Never Dies,” told CNN she was particularly tenacious.
“One time, she was so tired she could no longer raise her leg. So she got a masseur in to massage her so that she could do the kick for the scene, but then she was in pain for the rest of the day,” he recalled.
“She is no other ordinary girl,” Yeung added.
Dorothy Lau, who specializes in film studies at Baptist University, home to one of Hong Kong’s top media schools, called Yeoh’s victory “very significant.”
“It’s a celebration for Asian actors and actresses battling for their presence in Hollywood,” she told CNN.
Yeoh was among four Asian actors nominated for Oscars this year, the most ever.
Her “Everything Everywhere All at Once” costar, Ke Huy Quan, also won the Oscar for best supporting actor, and, like Yeoh, became the first actor to win an Oscar for portraying a Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese-speaking character.
In his own emotion-filled acceptance speech, the former child star, who for years worked behind the camera after roles for him dried up, recalled his remarkable path to the silver screen.
“My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here, on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” the Vietnamese-born actor said. “I cannot believe this is happening to me. This is the American dream.”
The seven awards “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won is the most for one film since Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” took home eight in 2009.
A first for India
With the best original song win for “Naatu Naatu,” “RRR” became the first Indian feature film to win an Oscar.
An Indian composer had previously won the Oscar for best original song with “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire,” but that film was a predominantly British production.
In contrast, “RRR” is an Indian production through and through — and a showcase for Tollywood, one of India’s non-Bollywood film industries that focuses primarily on Telegu language productions instead of Hindi films.
Following the win, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “The popularity of ‘Naatu Naatu’ is global. It will be a song that will be remembered for years to come.”
“India is elated and proud,” Modi added.
The team behind the film took to Twitter to celebrate the win.
“No words can describe this surreal moment. Dedicating this to all our amazing fans across the world. Thank you!! Jai Hind,” they wrote, using a popular rallying cry which means “Victory to India.”
The winning song was composed by M.M. Keeravani, featuring lyrics by Chandrabose.
“Naatu Naatu” beat both Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” from “Top Gun: Maverick,” and Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
Earlier in the evening, the Oscars highlighted “Naatu Naatu” with a musical performance recreating a famously energetic scene from the film that inspired countless memes.
Bollywood star Deepika Padukone, who introduced the performance, called the song “a total banger.”
It was the first song from an Indian production to ever be nominated for an Oscar. Praised for its buoyant choreography and catchy tune, the song won India’s first ever Golden Globe in the best original song category last month.
A clip from the film featuring Telugu superstars Ram Charan and N. T. Rama Rao Jr., known as Jr NTR, dancing in perfect synchronization to “Naatu Naatu” has more than 125 million views on YouTube.
The Indian film industry produces tens of thousands of movies every year in multiple languages. “RRR,” which stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt, is the country’s fourth-highest grossing picture, according to IMDb, earning nearly $155 million worldwide.
It became Netflix’s most-watched non-English movie last June.
The three-hour historical fantasy film is set during India’s struggle for independence from Britain and features wild action sequences, explosions, epic battles, complex dance numbers and a man wrestling a tiger.
Asian-American diaspora celebrates
Many Asian-Americans in the film industry took to Twitter to share their excitement following the wins for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which is in large part a story about Asian immigrants and the Asian-American experience.
Jon M. Chu, who directed “Crazy Rich Asians” which Yeoh starred in, tweeted that she was his “Auntie,” “hero” and “the inspiration we all need right now.”
Yeoh’s “Shang-Chi” co-star Simu Liu was effusive in his praise for the Malaysian actress and best supporting actor winner Quan. “Continue to blaze a golden trail and show all of us what is possible,” he said on Twitter.
Asian-American actress Lauren Tom, known for her role in the 1993 film “The Joy Luck Club,” thanked Yeoh for the inspiration, tweeting that she was “#sobbing” and “#soproud.”
But sociologist and film scholar Nancy Wang Yuen notes that the historic nature of these wins at this year’s Oscars “speaks to historical racist/sexist barriers and dearth of opportunities, not because all of a sudden Asians are talented.”
Filipino-American actor JB Tadena, who starred in the TV series “Hawaii Five-0,” said he’s hopeful these wins will lead to greater recognition for people who may have been previously disregarded.
“It is my sincere and honest hope that Ke’s win opens the door for the incredible talents out there who have been overlooked,” Tadena tweeted.
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CNN’s Chris Lau contributed reporting.
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