If there is a thin line that distinguishes vulgarity from sensuality, an equal line separates pure classicism from a dramatic aesthetic. Saroj Khan, born Nirmala Nagpal, knew exactly what sensuality and drama to bring to the set. Whether it was a Mani Ratnam song from Guru (2007), where the maestro director would be a bystander, or a Subhash Ghai bodice ripper in Khal Nayak (1993), where even the loquacious filmmaker would be rendered speechless, Saroj Khan, who died at 72 in Mumbai, was the boss of the song and dance.
Masterji as she was known was the reason Sridevi’s dances in Mr India (1987) became so iconic, whether it was the sensuousKate Nahin Kat Te, or the Chaplineque Hawa Hawai. She was the reason Madhuri Dixit became a star with Ek Do Teen from Tezaab (1988) and remained one with Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai in Khal Nayak. Much later as a reality show judge and TV dance teacher, Saroj Khan remained an inspiration for anyone who wanted to live life in Bollywood on her own terms.
Stories about her are legendary. Standing up to a big star who didn’t want her to choreograph Tamma Tamma in Thanedaar (1990) because it seemed too similar to Jumma Chumma from Hum (1991). Making Madhuri Dixit complete the iconic five-minute Dhak Dhak song for Beta (1992) in an unprecedented four nights. Or giving Shah Rukh Khan the now mandatory open arms pose in Baazigar (1993).
Daughter of a family that suffered during the Partition, leaving everything behind, she started as a child dancer in Mumbai cinema, getting married at the age of 13 to dance master B. Sohanlal, who was 30 years her senior (and was also choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant’s granduncle). When that was not successful, Saroj married Sardar Roshan Khan, a businessman, whom she was extremely respectful of while maintaining her own independence. She became a choreographer with the 1974 film Geeta Mera Naam and went on to design over 2,000 songs.
Saroj Khan was responsible for popularising the cinematic style of Kathak pioneered in Mumbai movies by Sitara Devi and her nephew Gopi Krishna. Nowhere was the distinction more vividly highlighted than in Devdas (2002), where Madhuri Dixit performs the more earthy Maar Dala, choreographed by Saroj Khan, and the more purist Kaahe Ched Mohe, choreographed by Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj.
Aditi Rao Hydari, a Bharatnatyam dancer trained by Leela Samson, and an actor who now works across several languages in Indian cinema, recalls her many conversations and interactions with “Masterji”. “She was the one in control of the set. She would decide the costume of the actress, the extent of navel that would show and the angle of the camera. Nobody would question her. She never treated actresses like items, but as pure dancers,” she says.
Star publicist Parull Gosain recalls travelling with Saroj Khan in Mysore to shoot a song on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for Guru. “She was choreographing Nannare. Aishwarya came to the set at 6 am sharp, touched her feet and danced. The next few days we travelled across south India and ate at many small udipis. All kinds of people would come to our table asking for her autograph. She would tell us great stories and anecdotes. She travelled in her own car with her dancers following her.” She remembers her as a hugely talented, warm and lively woman and someone you never messed with.
Hydari is grateful to her for her early encouragement. Much before she moved to Mumbai in 2010-11, she told the actor she would do well in Mumbai because she was so different. They remained in touch, whether it was Hydari shooting a song for her for a Marathi movie, Rama Madhav (2014), in five and a half hours, or doing a piece with a then unknown Ranveer Singh at the Gare de Lyon for Nuit Blanche Bollywood in Paris in 2008. “She was a dancer with every pore of her face and body and it was my good fortune to have danced under her tutelage,” says Hydari.
Saroj Khan’s death also marks the end of the centrality of the dance in Bollywood movies. A new generation of choreographers influenced more by Western pop culture redefined dances in Hindi cinema. Much of the credit for altering the status of background dancers goes to Shiamak Davar and Farah Khan. Increasingly songs have become relegated to the background and dances have become reduced to item numbers. But in Saroj Khan’s career one sees the Bollywood masala formula at its height, in all its colour, chaos and celebration.
Subhash Ghai, who worked closely with her starting with his 1983 film, Hero, calls it an end of era. “It is absolutely a personal loss,” he says. “She was an integral part of our Mukta Arts family, and my strong partner in grooming stars such as Madhuri Dixit, Meenakshi Seshadri, Manisha Koirala and Aishwarya Rai. She was a master of masters and she will live on in the history of cinema.”
And don’t forget, he notes, she stormed a male bastion, becoming the first woman choreographer in a universe of male dance masters in Indian cinema before the 1980s.
A rebel, a pioneer, a forever dancer, Saroj Khan lived for her art.