There was a time when viewers would buy a ticket just to see a song-and-dance sequence in a movie, and would stream out, once it was over. The 1988 film Tezaab was one of those. Directed by N Chandra, starring Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit, the movie was a blockbuster. It was a film where everything came together. It had the kind of energy that raised the standard potboiler format. It had Kapoor, whose man-on-the-warpath role would become a significant step in his graph. And it had Madhuri Dixit, whose bump-and-grind number, “Ek Do Deen”, would become iconic even as the movie played in theaters in its first run.
Overnight, Dixit became a star. That song kickstarted a glorious career, and became the reason for countless re-runs of the film. And the choreographer was the legendary Saroj Khan, who passed away early this morning after a cardiac arrest.
It’s not like Dixit was not a talented actress. But around the time she was trying to break into movies, there were many contenders for the top slot, especially Sridevi who was rapidly notching up the numbers in Hindi cinema. Dixit’s debut, Abodh, a 1984 Rajshri production, came and went without causing a ripple. A few other colourless movies followed. And then came Tezaab, and she zoomed right to the top spot.
At that time Dixit’s chief rival was Sridevi, whose Himmatwala (1983) had made her a popular go-to heroine. Sridevi was already a big name in the South, and had arrived in Bollywood determined to conquer. Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr India (1987) gave us Sri as a cringe-worthy female journalist, who made up for her clunkily-written part with an electric dance number. “Hawa Hawaai” is as iconic as “Ek Do Deen”, and the genius behind those moves, topped by the quantities of ostrich feathers never seen before in Bollywood, was Khan.
Khan started as a ‘background’ dancer, one amongst the many faceless aspirants who shimmy and shake behind the leads. The camera focuses only on the lead pair: the rest are just space fillers. She rose from the ranks, and was the first woman to become chief choreographer, before it was a thing, in Bollywood. She was an excellent dancer herself. And under her baton, and graceful steps imbued with feeling and energy, which great dancers like Sridevi and Dixit emulated so well, the camera had no choice but to linger lovingly on the leading ladies.
Sridevi got another Saroj Khan special in Chandni’s “Nau nau choodiyan,” a number still played at weddings. Kajol got one of her own in Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) in “Mehndi lagaa ke rakhna”. Aishwarya’s “Nimbooda” in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 1999 film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, was a Khan gift. As for Dixit, Khan’s largesse was endless. As much as she was the “Ek Do Teen” girl, she was the “Dhak Dhak” girl, and when she asked “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai” in Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993), all hell broke loose. There was a huge outcry: the lyrics were borderline vulgar, the focus was on the heaving bosom of Dixit (Neena Gupta danced along with her!), but what rescued the number from being downright C-grade were the saucy moves backed by Dixit’s grace, and hey ho, another iconic song-and-dance number was born.
Khan was a product of her times, and her struggle to get past the misogynistic, male-dominated behind-the-scenes fields in the movies, made her strong. Those who know her well say that she always spoke her mind, and she brought that fearlessness into her work. Khan’s choreography lifted the heroine from always being a supporting act to a full-fledged artiste in her own right. Someday, historians will write tomes on her significance. For right now, though, we bid a fond goodbye to the legend who made the top leading ladies of Hindi cinema dance to her tunes. Dola re dola re dola, hey dola..
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines