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She’s the Dancing Queen

The Saroj Khan Story,a documentary on a Bollywood choreographer,turns the spotlight on the real dhak dhak girl.

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi |
April 1, 2012 12:06:46 am

The Saroj Khan Story,a documentary on a Bollywood choreographer,turns the spotlight on the real dhak dhak girl.

When Madhuri Dixit swayed to the tunes of Ek do teen,wild met whimsy,and the adaa of bygone heroines complemented the jhatkas of future item girls. Tezaab,the biggest hit of 1988,owed much of its phenomenal success to that song. Behind the scene,had Saroj Khan foreseen any of this when she choreographed that piece? Did she guess that she was setting the benchmark for heroines,and for all the Munnis and Sheelas to come? Nobody knows for sure,because the lives of Bollywood choreographers rarely occupy screen or print space.

Now,a new documentary,The Saroj Khan Story,takes a look at the life and times of a Masterji,(a choreographer in Bollywood parlance). Made by Mumbai-based Nidhi Tuli,this PSBT and Film Division of India-funded documentary follows Khan as she teaches students,choreographs pieces for films and reminisces about an era gone by. For the first time,audiences get to meet the woman behind Ek do teen,Dhak dhak (Beta),Dola re dola and Maar daala (Devdas),Madhuban mein kanhaiya (Lagaan) and the recent Gun guna (Agneepath) and Dil mera muft ka (Agent Vinod) among others.

Nobody seems more surprised about the film than Khan herself. “I was the first female choreographer in Bollywood. I have won three National Awards,something no other Master has done. And now a film has been made … what can I say?” says the 64-year-old. If she’s thrilled about the film,she doesn’t show it. It was a trait that Tuli would recognise while filming. “She belongs to a time when people felt that only their work should speak. She isn’t very publicity-savvy,” says Tuli.

Sitting at her home in Mumbai,the filmmaker recalls why she wanted to tell the Saroj Khan story. “I was watching Nach Baliye in which Sarojji mentioned that she had been a background dancer in the 1958 Bimal Roy film Madhumati. It struck me what a long journey she has made. She is the only major dancer to have been present through the last 50 years in Bollywood. She is a living library,” she says. Khan had entered Bollywood when it was still a black-and-white world and grew up dancing with it. She’s been a colleague to Madhubala,has choreographed Vyjantimala Bali as well as Sridevi and Kareena Kapoor.

Tuli,on the other hand,is a relative new Bollywood entity. She’s been a dialogue writer for Mansoor Khan’s Josh and Rohan Sippy’s Kuch Na Kaho,as well as a documentary filmmaker,including the award-winning Ladies Special,about a women’s-only local train. In April 2010,she turned up at the Saroj Khan Dance Academy in Goregaon,with a plan to document Khan’s life. Khan gave her assent immediately. Only later did Tuli realise why the choreographer didn’t take time to agree to the film. She wasn’t concerned one way or the other.

Where a more media-savvy star would have showered her biographer with every detail,Khan remained distant. “Nidhi would wait for hours to shoot and I would forget she was there,” the choreographer confessed after the film premiered in Mumbai,recently. Tuli had to grab bytes between dance sessions,or while Khan was travelling. “She is a different person when she’s dancing,” says Tuli,having wrapped up her hour-long-film in February after a 14-month schedule.

In the movie,travelling in a car along rain-washed Mumbai roads,Khan gives the first peek into a hard life. “I have been learning from life,never depend on anybody. Whatever you can do,only you can do. Nobody’s there to help you. And since I have taken this lesson,I feel nice and relieved,” she says,busy playing a game on her cellphone and not looking at the camera. Cinema was a taboo career option in the late ‘50s. “She came from a business family,where they looked down on films. When her parents decided to let her join the industry,they changed her name from Nirmala to Saroj so that the relatives wouldn’t find out,” says Tuli.

The Saroj Khan Story is also an archive of Bollywood dancing. Like many prodigies,Khan had revealed her talent while still a toddler,and drove her mother to fear for her sanity as she danced with shadows on walls. She entered Bollywood around her third birthday,as the child version of Shyama,an established dancer of the 1950s. A child artiste,a background dancer,an assistant to Sohanlal,Khan came into her own as a choreographer in the 1974 film Geeta Mera Naam. “She became passionate about dance somewhere along the way after she met Sohanlal (of the Sohanlal-Hiralal fame,the legendary dance masters of the 1960s and 70s) because his dance was perfect. She could see the beauty of his compositions. She fell in love with his work and him,” says Tuli.

But it was a few years later,with Ghai’s Hero (1983),that Khan finally got Bollywood to take note of her. “Main teri dushman from Nagina (1986) was one of her earlier masterstrokes followed by Kaate nahin Katte from Mr India (1987),” says Tuli. Kaate Nahin kat te was a milestone in another way. While,a previous generation of heroines was coy,this dance had Sridevi at her sensuous best. “There was also the unforgettable Sailaab song,Koi aaye leke pyaar. Even Chandni and Lamhe had beautiful movements with the heroines looking sexy and sensuous,” says Tuli.

Khan takes her reputation as the one who introduced sensuality to Bollywood’s dance sequences seriously. “In those days,the ladies could dance. They would do one full piece by themselves. Now,a dance is about scissors and editors. Show me one actor today doing a sequence for 20 seconds. Every dance posture is filmed separately and then spliced together on the editor’s desk. That’s not dance,” says Khan. Her other pet peeve — “People like the music nowadays. Sheela ki jawani had more dancing than Munni badnaam hui. But Munni was a better song,so it clicked with the people,” she says. In Devdas,however,she made sure that “people remembered Dola re dola over Maar daala even though the latter was a better song”.

The film brings some of the major voices of the passing era — Vyjayantimala Bali,whom Khan choreographed when she was merely 12,Pandhari Juker,a make-up artist since 1949,N Chandra,director of Tezaab,Subhash Ghai,Sanjay Leela Bhansali and,of course,Madhuri Dixit,with whom Khan struck up a rare friendship. “I told Madhuri,just observe Saroj carefully and copy her as well as you can. If you can do even 70 per cent,your are going to be a very big star,” says Ghai in the film.

Tuli emerges as a sympathetic biographer,who ignores Khan’s warts. There is no mention of professional rivalries or controversies,and even Khan’s insecurities in a mercurial industry can only be guessed at when she says,“Now people think that we are the past. I want to show them there is no such thing as past and present. If one song of yours clicks,that is more than enough for people to remember you again.” By that yardstick,Khan can look forward to tomorrow. Kareena Kapoor’s mujra sequence in Agent Vinod,has become a talking point,even if the actress hasn’t done justice to it. There’s time yet for another new day.

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