Almost two decades ago, in July 2002, when Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Devdas released, Saroj Khan, the choreographer of the film, was admitted in the ICU. Khan had been unwell for a while and was on heavy medication to douse the pain she had been feeling while teaching the two leads — Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai — during the filming. After the first screening ended at night, Bhansali and Rai headed to the hospital to meet Khan. In her dazed state, she had a question for Bhansali, “Dola re dola pe seeti baji kya? (Did anyone whistle when Dole re played?),” she asked. Sitting by her bedside, Bhansali welled up. “That is the madness. That is why Saroj Khan is who she is… (In Dola re) She was like a school to me, an institution who taught me how to shoot a dance,” says Bhansali in The Saroj Khan Story (2011), the PSBT documentary on Khan directed by filmmaker Nidhi Tuli. In the documentary, Bhansali gives a peek into the fearless and passionate world of choreographer Saroj Khan, fondly referred to as ‘masterji’, who passed away in Mumbai in the wee hours of Friday morning. She was 71.
From being a background dancer for Madhubala in her famed number Aayiye meherbaan, teaching Vyjayanthimala the nuances of choreography as Kathak exponent Master Sohanlal’s assistant (she was also his wife) and then teaching dance to some of the most significant names in the film industry, in a career spanning more than half a century, Khan was a crackerjack of a dance matriarch, whose name was and will be synonymous with dance in Indian cinema. Every step she created had further sub-steps, and they were all part of a ritual she would follow day in and day out. The sense of precision, even when it was just a micro beat, was spot on and honest to its core. The stillness was as significant as the whirls and that, among many other things, eventually turned into magic on screen. This is what made Khan special.
While Dola re, with its intricate choreography and opulent sets, became one of the finest examples of a duet dance performance in mainstream Indian cinema in the last couple of decades, it was another song from the film that hit the ball out of the park. Most Kathak sequences in the film were choreographed by the form’s exponent, Birju Maharaj, but the song Maar daala, which was Khan’s choreography, stood tall, alongside the other, ‘more classical’ sequences. The phrase ‘Maar daala’ is guarded and restrained through dance steps by Dixit on screen; of the more than 25 times that it makes its appearance, the expression and execution is different every time — sometimes it’s a hardcore step, sometimes just the flick of a wrist or at others just the movement of one brow. It’s a feat to pull off in a five-minute piece, which has so many other complicated elements, including a Kathak taraana for an interlude that requires rhythmically controlled footwork in tandem with the ankle bells. This is a requirement in classical dance and is done with much flourish there. But Khan’s legacy also lies in being able to adapt classical dance for Bollywood, presenting it in a way that it’s accessible for anyone and everyone watching, but without diluting the original art form.
Another Bhansali song that was aced by Khan is Nimbooda (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam), a piece that was also controversial for being plagiarised from a folk ditty created by the Manganiyars — folk musicians from Rajasthan. Here, Khan tried to adapt from folk dance forms. One sees elements of Rajasthani Kaalbeliya, Bhavai and Gujarati Garba in the song. It’s a tough choreography and Rai manages better with her expressions than the actual dance movements. Her manoeuvres, however, are stiff and lack the ‘lachak’ that ‘masterji’ demanded, but the performance is thrilling and very watchable due to its quick-step choreography, Rai’s immaculate expressions and celebratory melody. Rai, in terms of dance, found her own in Subhash Ghai’s Taal, where there were many dance performances, including the soft but rhythm-oriented title song, the fast-paced Kahin aag lage and the sensuous Ramta jogi, all choreographed by Khan.
Khan began her career in Hindi cinema with Hero (1983). But one of her earliest successful outings was Main teri dushman in the horror fantasy thriller Nagina (1986), in which she choreographed Sridevi. The dance is to the tune of a snake charmer’s been and some excellently played robust beats on the dholak. Khan chose aggressive yet very tasteful choreography to depict the dance of a shapeshifting woman who can turn into a venomous snake when she hears the snake charmer’s melody. It remains one of the best depictions of snake dance in Indian cinema. The actor and choreographer paired again in Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India (1987). Be it the sensuous Kaate nahi kat te or the buffoonery of Hawa Hawai, every song had a sophisticated set of steps, a clear set of movements. Nothing was done in a hurry. The former piece is more complicated, as Khan had to create create strides and steps that didn’t look absurd as Sridevi danced alone, but to the audience, it had to appear as if she was dancing with the invisible Mr India (Anil Kapoor).
The magic worked in Chandni too. Several girls back then in the ’80s pranced to Nau nau choodiyaan — the quintessential dance number that was great fun and frolic to watch but one can see the strenuous work that was put into a very strong rhythm-based piece. It merges folk forms with Kathak and has a smattering of typical Bollywood jhatkas. It worked like no other ‘sangeet song’ has in years.
However, the song that would go down in the history of Indian cinema as the master mover, one that was sung by generations across age groups, and remained on top of the charts for months, was Madhuri Dixit’s Ek do teen (Tezaab, 1988). Director N Chandra’s brief was clear. It needed to be wild. Khan made it top-notch with swift movements and groovy steps. It made such an impression that Filmfare was compelled to institute an award for Best Choreography, a category that did not exist before this. Khan danced on the same song on the stage after receiving the award. “Three cheers to the little fat girl who dances better than many stars,” said Ghai after giving her the award. This was the first of the eight Filmfare awards and three National Awards that Khan would go on to win.
Khan followed it up with a few controversial numbers — Dhak dhak karne laga (Beta, 1992) and Choli ke peeche kya hai (Khal Nayak, 1993). She was even pulled up by the Censor Board for “shaking it deliberately”. In Tuli’s film, she recalls how she told them, “Where is my heart? Near my bustline. I can’t show it through the bum.” She was let off, and the song made it to the screen.
Khan was fond of working with brilliant dancers such as Dixit, Meenakshi Sheshadri and Sridevi. But what she loved, even more, was a good challenge. Like making Sunny Deol and Sanjay Dutt dance. She turned Tamma Tamma loge into an iconic piece with its staccato choreography and a rare feat — Dutt managed to move. It took six months of hard work.
Another set of choreographies that won her many awards was in Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007). Barso re has the female protagonist dancing in the rain. Khan gave Rai unfettered steps, which don’t look like formal steps, but just an expression of happiness. The effortlessness was wonderful to watch. Also, AR Rahman’s unstructured compositions are difficult to fit into dance. But Tere bina is a fine example of how great work can be done with movements even when the melody is not the kind that can be bound into beats easily.
Perhaps a dance project that Khan should have been known much more for is the one that very few even know exists. It was Sharada Ramanathan’s Tamil film Shringaram (2005) that had dance sequences with Aditi Rao Hydari and Hamsa Moily. The choreographies are embedded in Bharatanatyam, a form that Khan never learned but imbibed by watching people. She choreographed legendary violinist Lalgudi Jairaman’s Carnatic classical compositions and set them to dynamic Bharatanatyam adavus. Post the release of the film, Chennai-based Sri Krishna Gaana Sabha, one of the most prestigious cultural institutions that is rather conservative in its choice of guests and musicians, invited Khan for a lecture-demonstration at its centre. This was rare. The traditional world of classical dance, which is focused on who dances what and how and comes from where, had unlocked its doors to invite a teacher from the repertoire of film dancing to be one among them. Such was the magic of Saroj Khan, the one who broke every barrier with her sheer talent, grit, hard work and absolute passion for something that gave her life and breath — the idea of expression through movement — creating a vortex of energy for which she will always be remembered.
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