Choreographers · Swansong

Power and behold: The dancing legacy of Saroj Khan

Sarojji, you were a legend and one of a kind. A heartfelt salute for countless moments of cinematic joy and moves, for making a mark as a female choreographer in Hindi cinema – despite the odds stacked against you.

Saroj Khan’s life and 60 plus years of career were defined by her natural talent and love for dance – she transformed into an ethereal being when she put her dancing shoes on. A classic rags to riches story, her professional and personal journey was filled with pure love, dedication, hard work, passion and candour.

While her aptitude for dance gave her everything, it also took a lot away. Sexism, exploitation, struggles, barriers… she didn’t let any of that stop her. Over the years, she worked with a variety and generations of stars including Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Vyjayantimala, Raj Kapoor, Nutan, Sadhana, Rekha, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Meenakshi Seshadri, Sunny Deol, Kajol, Akshay Kumar, Sanjay Dutt, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Govinda, Aamir Khan, Juhi Chawla, Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari, Kangana Ranaut and Shahid Kapoor.

Saroj was born in 1948. Her parents, affected by partition, had fled from a wealthy existence in Pakistan to poverty in India, hoping to build a new life. At three years of age, she entered the film industry as a child actor, fending for her family, when her mother discovered her love for dancing quite by accident. To avoid the stigma of working in films, her name was changed from Nirmala Nagpal to Saroj.

At 8-9 years, Saroj had outlived her career as a young actor and turned to background dancing for a living. She had no formal training but picked up dance movements easily and quickly. In those years, as a group dancer, she identified herself as Anglo-Indian, had short hair and mainly did Western styles of dancing –  jive, rock and roll, and acrobatics.

Her transition to Indian dancing was difficult. Western dancers were looked down upon by the classical-bent dance veterans. Nevertheless, she turned a chance to work with B Sohanlal into an opportunity, when she was called to perform acrobatics (Spot Saroj in video below at 1:42-1:44, 1:52-1:58 and 2:04-2:16)  as a group dancer in Vyjayantimala’s version of Eeena Meena Dika from Aasha.

Saroj changed her appearance from an Anglo-Indian to Indian to learn from Sohanlal, it marked her big break, and she became a part of his troupe, first as a group dancer and later as assistant. At 13 years of age, she married her 38-year-old  mentor, who had shaped her as a dancer. He was married with children but she was unaware and much in love. At 14, she gave birth to their first child. Her association with him lasted 5 odd years in which she learnt the finer aspects of dance and also discovered her knack for choreography. When he was away in Europe picturising Yeh Mera Prem Patra for Raj Kapoor’s Sangam, PL Santoshi (Rajkumar Santoshi’s father) inspired her to choreograph Nigahen Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai for the Raj Kapoor-Nutan starrer Dil Hi To Hai.

When Sohanlal refused to give their child his name, she walked out. It was the start of a long struggle but also finding her own feet as a solo professional. “I wanted to live my life as I wanted to live, without him,” she had said at a Ted Talk event. Those were big words from a young teenage mother, who also had to break professional ties with her ex-husband. Despite what happened, she continued to respect him and remained grateful for the learnings and livelihood. Not a justification but it gives context to her controversial casting couch comments in 2018. After the break-up, she went back to working as a group dancer and assistant choreographer for other lead choreographers. She was a good talent to hire, she could be the proxy lead whenever needed, without the money or credit.

Accolades and fame were still elusive despite support from actress Sadhana who gave her a break as a choreographer in her directorial venture Geeta Mera Naam (1974). Her talent wasn’t enough, she was still stuck in the C-grade & D-grade categories. “I worked very hard – day and night – but I was not popular. Nobody accepted me as a choreographer as I was female. That time, the rule was that only men can be choreographers or dance masters, as they were called then,” she recalled.

The road to A-grade success began with the Hema Malini-Dharmendra starrer Pratigya (1975) but the journey to popularity was still slow. Around that time, she also remarried second husband Sardar Roshan Khan and took some years off to focus on her family. She returned with Raj Babbar’s debut movie Jazbaat (1980) and this time the path was smoother. She was accepted whole-heartedly as a choreographer in the industry. Top directors like Subhash Ghai, Shekhar Kapur, Yash Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mani Rathnam lined up, finally.

Saroj was also known for her penchant for perfection and had a temper to unleash on anyone who didn’t meet her high levels. Though she loved actors who knew their dance, she also enjoyed guiding non-dancers like Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor and Sunny Deol. Actors had to rehearse before they arrived on set. Madhuri rehearsed Ek Do Teen for over two weeks. Saroj demanded that Sanjay must rehearse Tamma Tamma (Thanedaar) as a signing condition. He did. She added a touch of femininity to Hrithik’s steps in Bumbro (Mission Kashmir). Kareena fondly remembers Saroj telling her, “Perrr nahin chala saktiii to kam se kam face to chalaa!” (if you can’t work your feet, at least work your face!). Their song Ye Ishq Hai from Jab We Met (2007) won the National Award. She also won National Awards for Dola Re from Devdas (2000) and for all her songs in Sringaram (2005).

I had no idea who Saroj Khan was until the storm of Ek Do Teen hit India in 1988, with the release of Tezaab, despite films like Hero (1985), Mr. India (1987). Hawa Hawai was  a huge success but Sridevi stole the limelight for an overall knockout performance. The song did lead her to Tezaab though.

Saroj was hired to train Madhuri, who had done a few movies but hadn’t succeeded as a lead heroine yet. It won’t be an exaggeration to say Madhuri owes her success to Saroj Khan.  Ek Do Teen handed her stardom and a career on the platter. Saroj choreographed her in two starkly different numbers in Tezaab and Ram Lakhan (1989) . Ek Do Teen was out there and fun compared to the classic and subtle beauty of Oh Ramji. Madhuri aced both.

There was a marked difference in Madhuri’s persona on screen post the Saroj influence. The oomph, confidence and attitude that Madhuri imbibed in both her acting and dance performances were unmistakable learnings from Sarojji. They went on to create Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intezaar (Sailaab, 1990), Tamma Tamma Loge (Thanedaar, 1990), Dhak Dhak Karne Laga (Beta, 1992), Choli Pe Peeche Kya Hai (Khalnayak, 1993), Maar Daala (Devdas, 2000) and Tabaah Ho Gaye  (Kalank, 2019).

Saroj had a long association with Sridevi as well, whom she considered her daughter. There is no doubt that her partnership with Madhuri was more fruitful commercially but some of her most refined and creative pieces were with Sridevi. Even an average movie like Nagina (1986) is still remembered for its daringly delightful Main Teri Dushman. Some of their other remarkable work together was in Chandni (1989), Chaalbaaz (1989), Lamhe (1991) and Khuda Gawah (1992).

They created wonders in the cult classic Mr. India with Hawa Hawai. I remember watching it in a seedy Mumbai theatre and being blown away. It was one of those surreal cinematic experiences where your senses are shot and the only way to get over it was to watch the movie many times over. The mad parody song, the fun fantasy Karte Hain Hum Pyaar and the sensual declaration Kate Nahin Kat-te. The pair also carved the songs Mere Hathon Mein, Main Sasural Nahin Jaoongi, Aa Meri Jaan and Tere Mere Hoton Pe for Yash Chopra’s Chandni (1989).

Ek Do Teen brought other achievements for Saroj. She bumped up her price, benefiting her assistants, and made sure choreography was valued for its true worth. She was proud of the students she gave the industry. Her unavailability propelled two of her assistants into success. She requested prodigee Ahmed Khan to choreograph Ramgopal Verma’s Rangeela (1995) which won him a Filmfare award for Rangeela Re. Farah Khan stepped in to do Pehla Nasha when she couldn’t adjust her dates for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992).

Sarojji‘s style was a stamp, she dominated the 90s and left her impact well into 2000s, despite newcomers who took over, with movies like Khuda Gawah (1992), DarrBaazigar, Lootere, Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1993), Mohra (1994), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Khamoshi (1993), Yes Boss, Ishq (1997), Mission Kashmir, Mere Watan-Fiza (2000) and Radha Kaise Na Jale, Lagaan (2000). She did some beautiful work with Aishwarya Rai in Taal (1999),  Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Guru (2007). She also left her mark on films like Love Aaj Kal (2009), Agent Vinod (2010), Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). Her last two films were Kalank and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019).

Filmfare introduced choreography awards acknowledging its contribution in a film. She won the first three – scoring a hat trick for Ek Do Teen, Tezaab (1988), Na Jaane Kahan Se, Chaalbaaz (1989) and Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intezaar, Sailaab (1990). She scored five more for Dhak Dhak Karne Laga, Beta (1992), Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, Khal Nayak (1993), Nimbooda, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Dola Re, Devdas (2003) and Barso Re, Guru (2008).

Not that Saroj Khan needed awards to prove her worth. Hopefully they were sweet revenge for having to stay under the radar for decades despite her formidable talent. Na Jaane Kahan Se, the slapstick rain song from Chaalbaaz, reflected both Saroj and Sridevi’s personalities, their grace and ability to enchant. Sunny added his indelible charm, armed with his motorbike and four left feet. Masterji, as she was fondly called until the end, honed him and the number to glory.

Portrayed with dignity and grace, her women could still be sensual and defiant within the traditional mould. As Kareena said aptly in her tribute: dance and expression can never be the same for us actors. I would add Hindi cinema to that. It’s an end of an era. Or perhaps, many eras.

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