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Sunday, August 09, 2020

Saroj Khan: Grand dame of choreography

Filmmaker Nidhi Tuli on the making of her documentary, The Saroj Khan Story, where she chronicled the dynamic life of the film industry’s Grand Master.

Written by Nidhi Tuli | Pune | Updated: July 11, 2020 5:03:13 pm
saroj khan Filmmaker Nidhi Tuli shared how the late choreographer Saroj Khan was full of stories.

My phone rang on July 3 morning asking me for a quote on Saroj ji because she had passed on… I thought I was calm but I wasn’t. I had spent almost two years with her, making a film on her, and had seen her closely… I don’t know how I dropped a glass bowl to the floor, it shattered like a wind screen, into a million small pieces and I stood in the kitchen with the phone, a cloudy head and lots of glass on the floor. She couldn’t have gone. There was so much more to say, I always wanted to go back to chat some more, shoot some more, fill in the gaps… I never did but kept thinking about it…

From this one film of mine I could never move on; I could never move on from Saroj ji. I felt I owed her more. I felt incomplete about the film.

I remember that moment on a reality dance show when Saroj ji was judging a couple dancing to Daiya re daiya chad gaya paapi bichchua from Madhumati. She said, “Jab yeh gaana filmaya ja raha tha tab main peechay dancer thi.” My eyes widened. Madhumati was made in 1958 and here was this Grand Master Choreographer in 2008, what a journey it must’ve been. I had to find out.

When I met her and told her that I wanted to make a film on her, she was nonchalant and said, “Okay”. I told her that I’d like to come and just watch her work. So I started visiting her, sometimes at her dance academy and sometimes at her shoots. One such time she was choreographing a new actress who couldn’t get the dance step right. She kept asking Saroj ji to change the step again and again. Saroj ji did that once, twice, and then she got exasperated and said, “Ab isse sasta movement kahan se layun”. I burst out laughing and had to leave the floor but what a great expression that was.

One time I asked her, considering how demure heroines used to be in the earlier times, and since she was trained in those times, she must’ve gone against the grain to be able to do all these fabulous sensuous numbers. She looked at me and simply said, “No, I am very sexy”. I laughed a little and she said, “I am serious, I am very sexy.” With that mane around her head flying with the whizz of the fan, she got up to dance. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, I knew what she meant.

Her friend from an earlier era who used to sometimes give Kathak classes at her academy, told me, “Saroj ki body mein nagin hai… attract karti hai.”

On some days Saroj ji would be so chatty, full of stories, irreverent, and would delight in recalling expressions of people when they first saw Dhak dhak karne laga (Beta, 1991). In the same breath, she’d talk about how she had composed the brilliant Bharatanatyam sequences in Sringaram (2007) by recalling temple sculptures. On other days she’d be very matter of fact or even cut and dry, and I’d just be there listening, watching, trying to get a handle.

And then I started shooting, some days I’d ask her and book my camera and sound person for the next day and land up on time only to be told that the rehearsal has been cancelled. She would forget about me often. She was wary of me at first, wondering what I was really after, would I let her down? A feeling that I gathered she had experienced often. I was really just interested in capturing her genius, sadly on a shoestring budget.

saroj khan Saroj Khan choreographed hits like “Hawa Hawai”, “Choli Ke Peeche”, “Nimbooda” among many others. (Photo: Nidhi Tuli)

I told her we’ll do the interviews slowly, we’ll unfold the story at different places. But the first day itself, she was on a roll, she wanted to tell me everything. So we kept shooting, she slipped into nostalgia, hardships, warmth of colleagues and actors, her first marriage, the breaking of it, all of it on that one day. I thought we’ll get her to repeat some of that later, but that never happened.

Soon after her daughter Kuku fell ill, and although she honoured all her work commitments she never spoke on camera with the same feeling as the first time; she was always preoccupied. There was something about her relationship with her children; I never asked.

But with Kuku’s illness, my time with her became less and less, I had to find other relevant people to speak to. It took months and in one case one whole year to get an interview, but I waited. Broke but determined. It resulted in some beautiful interviews and I was grateful. Grateful that Saroj ji heard her peers speak with love and admiration.

She always portrayed herself as a tough person, but she was soft and vulnerable, detached yet emotional. She did not expect anything from anyone. She understood how it worked but still got disappointed each time.

She had no filters and spoke exactly how she felt. She didn’t have the PR skill because she believed, like it should be in an ideal world, that her work will speak for itself.

She wore her genius ever so lightly but she was an incredible woman who made a name for herself in a male bastion. A name so big that she became the first face of Hindi film choreography. I became very fond of her during the making of the film and to her credit, she did keep in touch.

She really wanted a Padmashri, a recognition from the government. And considering her brilliant body of work, she should have received it years ago.

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