I was just watching Saroj Khan dance to Ek, do, teen (from Tezaab, 1988) at the Filmfare Awards, after she won the trophy for Best Choreography. That was the year (1989) the best choreographer award was especially instituted for her dance and I found this clip of her dancing, which I have now put on Instagram to keep viewing in a loop; I don’t know if (actor) Madhuri Dixit can dance to the song the way Khan did. She was like moving electricity!
In the past months, I have been going through contact sheets of four decades and only 10 days ago, I was looking at the folder that has images of Khan I took in the early ’90s. I first saw her on the set of Khal Nayak (1993, directed by Subhash Ghai). She was shorter than even me, and, yet, so light-footed, almost birdlike, a bundle of energy, and so graceful. The fact that she was the first woman choreographer in Bollywood, another male-dominated field, is also something that drew me to her.
I reached out to Colin Jacobson (picture editor of The Independent magazine) with a pitch on Bollywood. I wanted to look beyond the stars. I told him I wanted to photograph Khan. She had completely changed cinema history and transformed what song and dance could be in films. For me, the big shift was with Choli ke peechhe (from the film Khal Nayak). He offered me an assignment for two days but I stretched it to three weeks, staying with friends in Mumbai.
Khan was doing three shifts a day then and I would accompany her everywhere. She was extremely welcoming, generous and just adopted me. I think she also felt a sense of pride that there were big stars on the set but my attention was completely focussed on her. On the sets, I was Masterji’s photographer. She had a manner of putting people at ease immediately and because she embraced me, everyone else did, too. Nobody was a big star in front of her. Everyone wanted to be choreographed by her, they all called her “Masterji”, they all touched her feet. She was on top of the entire situation, not just choreography, often handling the camera even. The female stars felt she was on their side. They trusted her completely and were never uncomfortable doing the jhatkas or anything she asked them to do, knowing that she would never let it become vulgar. She was clearly the leader of the pack, the real queen of Bollywood for me.
You felt in her embrace this promise of a long friendship. She was able to make a wonderful connection with women in a way that only women can. We also bonded over our endeavour to lose weight. She was going to (nutritionist) Anjali Mukerjee then, and I was copying her diet. I would ride in her car, eat with her, she would drop me back home since it would be late at night. It was such an interesting time in Indian cinema and I had all the access because of her.
It’s a big regret that I had to stop that work because I ran out of film and had no money to buy more. At the time, I made a small selection from the photographs; they were published in The Independent magazine. In 2015, my friend, choreographer Mark Morris, put together a projection with some of those photographs on loop with Carnatic nadaswaram music for the White Light Festival at the Lincoln Center. It later travelled to Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa (2017).
Very sadly, we lost touch and it’s only recently that I got her phone number again. I wanted to show her these new photographs that I’d previously never even noticed in my contact sheets. I’d thought we would sit together and make something out of them, find a form for them. Now, I will probably make a ‘Masterji Museum’ — my own small tribute to her, or a book, or both.
(As told to Vandana Kalra)
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