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Saroj, the Khan who made Madhuri and Sridevi the dancing queens of Bollywood

Saroj Khan, who died Friday, is called the mother of Indian film choreography for how she changed the game using Kathak and folk elements.

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If you were asked to pick just one song as the definitive Bollywood movie dance number, one that truly combines the colour, fun, sensuality, melody, drama, entertainment and rhythm of a Hindi film song, chances are you ‘d think of Ek Do Teen or Choli Ke Peechhe Kya Hai, perhaps Dhak Dhak Karne Laga, Mere Haathon Mein Nau Nau Choodiyan Hain or Hawa Hawai. 

The first names that comes to mind when you think of Bollywood dance (because it is its own kind of dance) are Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi. And if there was one person who made them the dancing sensations they are, it was Saroj Khan.

The genius choreographer died Friday at the age of 71, after having been hospitalised for breathing difficulties in June. Often called the mother of Indian film choreography, she composed dance, as she called it, for around 2,000 songs. But her legacy isn’t just about the sheer number of songs she worked on over her almost 50-year career as a choreographer. It is also about how she changed the game.

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Child actor, background dancer, assistant choreographer

Born in 1948 as Nirmala Nagpal, Saroj Khan has often spoken of the hardships her family faced when she was a child. Her father was a wealthy man in Karachi, but when they moved to Bombay after Partition, he had nothing. And then he got cancer and couldn’t work.

Meanwhile, toddler Nirmala, the oldest of five children, used to be obsessed with watching how the shadows on the walls of their tiny home in a cramped Mahim chawl would shift and change shape with her movements. Her mother thought there was something wrong with her and took her to a doctor. He not only told her mother to relax, there was nothing wrong with a child wanting to dance, but also suggested that perhaps she could be put to work in the movies. After all, money was tight. It was a good idea, the family thought, but they were afraid of what other relatives would say, so they changed her name.

For the next few years, after her father died, little Saroj brought home money as an actor, but by about the age of 10, she was, as she used to say, at that awkward age when she was too old to be a child actor but not old enough to be a lead. But she had been noticed, even at that young age, for her dancing talent, so she became a background dancer, or what was then called a group dancer. One of her more famous appearances during this phase was as a boy in the classic song Aaiye Meherbaan from the film Howrah Bridge (1958) that starred Madhubala.

In a PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust) documentary called The Saroj Khan Story, actor Vyjayanthimala (an acclaimed dancer-choreographer herself), recalled how, before the late 1950s, dance in Hindi movies was nothing special. The movement was light, not terribly precise and there was no real element of dance involved, neither from folk or classical traditions. It was dancer-choreographer brothers B. Sohanlal and B. Hiralal, trained in Kathak and born into a family of Kathak dancers, who brought real dance to Hindi cinema.

Sohanlal took a prepubescent Saroj Khan under his wing and taught her how to compose dance, and for the next several years, she had been an assistant choreographer as well. In the PSBT film, one of the crew members recalled that during the filming of Taj Mahal (1963), choreographed by Sohanlal, someone suggested to the director M. Sadiq that Saroj, who was part of the background dancers, should be moved up front, because her movements and facial expressions were exquisite. Sadiq agreed that she was brilliant, but that was the problem — if he moved her up front, no one would even look at the lead.

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For a woman to be recognised as Masterji was a long road

When Saroj was just about 14, she and her 43-year-old mentor and boss, B. Sohanlal, became romantically involved. The two even married and had children, but he was already married and a father, and refused to give his name to his children with Saroj. She eventually cut off all ties with him and raised her children without him, later marrying a man named Sardar Roshan Khan, with whom she also had children. Her son Raju Khan, is, in fact, a well-known Bollywood choreographer himself. One of her daughters, Kuku, died in 2011.

Saroj was not known to mince her words (and she also courted controversy, be it her views on her fellow choreographers, actors or her comments on the Bollywood casting couch that led to major backlash). But even though she was extremely frank about her relationship with Sohanlal, including how harsh he was as a teacher, she looked back upon it through a lens of gratitude for all that he gave her and how he changed her life. As young children, she and her siblings often survived on onion pakodas and bread from a kindly neighbour who ran a street food stall, because there was no food to eat at home, but “Sohanlal gave me bread and butter,” she said in the PSBT documentary. “He gave me a name.”

But that name didn’t come easy. People didn’t think a woman could be a dance director or Masterji, as she has long been called. It was only in 1974, with Geeta Mera Naam, starring Sadhana, Sunil Dutt, Helen and Feroz Khan, that she even got a break as a proper choreographer in her own name. She started getting a few bigger offers after that, but then, as it happens with so many women, she gave it up to go and look after her family. She went to Dubai because she had to look after her younger siblings, her children and even her husband’s children from his earlier marriage. It was only after they all had decent jobs that she moved back and began to look for work again.

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The rise of Sridevi, Madhuri and Saroj Khan

In its purest sense, the word Bollywood is a mix of genres, but the one that perhaps encapsulates it best is the musical. Things are different now, with music being employed differently, perhaps subtly in the background, and songs aren’t typically picturised on people actually dancing per se. But when one thinks of classic Bollywood, song and dance are an intrinsic part of that experience, which was really born in the 1970s with the masala movie. So when Saroj Khan returned to Mumbai, she finally found an industry that recognised what she could do.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the years when Bollywood danced to Saroj Khan’s tunes, in a sense. Think of Sridevi’s priceless expressions and freeflowing moves in Hawa Hawai (Mr India, 1987), her legendary snake-woman turn in Main Teri Dushman (Nagina, 1988) or her comic timing in the rain in Na Jaane Kahaan Se Aayi Hai (Chaalbaaz, 1989). Or picture Madhuri’s thumkas in Ek Do Teen (Tezaab, 1988), her famous heaving chest in Dhak Dhak Karne Laga (Beta, 1992) or her sly sensuality and chemistry with Neena Gupta in the folk-influenced Choli Ke Peechhe Kya Hai (Khalnayak, 1993).

This was a Saroj Khan who had found her groove. And after she won the inaugural Filmfare Award for Best Choreographer (for Ek Do Teen), she became a star in her own right.

Watching the song today, one is struck by how easily it could have become vulgar. A woman gyrating and thrusting her hips and chest while a crowd of men cheer around her sounds like a recipe for crass and misogynistic, but it was because of not only Madhuri’s own Kathak training, but Saroj Khan’s careful attention to facial expression, and a certain delicateness of movement she insisted on, that the song remains enjoyable, even today. That awareness, that intelligence, came from her training with Sohanlal and from the fact that she had, by now, been in the industry for almost 40 years, although it was only with this song that both she and Madhuri became real household names.

Actor Aditi Rao Hydari, an acclaimed Bharatnatyam dancer, tells ThePrint, “Every pore of her face and body danced. When she used to show me what to do, I’d forget to learn and just keep watching her. In fact, she was one of the first people who told me I should come to Bombay and become an actor.” Rao Hydari’s first movie, a Tamil film called Sringaram (2007), won Saroj Khan one of her three National Awards for choreography.

In the PSBT film, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who worked with Saroj Khan in films like Khamoshi (1996) and Devdas (2002), recalled that it was when working with her for the latter that he really learnt about dance direction, and how to shoot dance sequences. How she used space in Dola Re Dola, how she taught Madhuri a different expression for each Maar Daala, how she knew which angle to have the camera. He explained that while she may not have the pure classical Kathak training or knowledge of, say, a Birju Maharaj, she understood better than anyone else how to use Kathak in film dance.

From a filmography that spans four decades as a dance director, we leave you with a few of Saroj Khan’s many memorable choreographies.

Ek Do Teen (Tezaab, 1988)

Choli Ke Peechhe Kya Hai (Khalnayak, 1993)

Hawa Hawai (Mr India, 1987)

Dola Re Dola (Devdas, 2002)

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