Saroj Khan patented the dignity of popular dance as an unbound spirit without prejudice
She was probably one of our first women to be called “Masterji” in the gendered matrix of Bollywood, the term commanding respect for the craft that she had perfected rather than the person she was. Choreographer Saroj Khan, who died after a cardiac arrest yesterday, changed the contours of popular dance as we knew it and ensured that the film industry rated her the same way they would a music director and not consign her to the credits of being a dance instructor/trainer. And she became a much bigger cultural phenomenon before youtubers and TikTok influencers copied her footprints.
For the life of me, I am yet to understand why back in the day, the canteen at Presidency College, Kolkata, that would pride itself in following Kurt Cobain and the like, so breezily embrace Ek Do Teen. Not so much for Madhuri, whose cute smile and sensuous eyes had boys rooting for her but the entire dance sequence she executed and what it represented. Everybody would line up free tables, join them, sing the song while a boy or girl would mimic the steps on the temporary platform. Gender didn’t matter, nor did the absence of beer as students cheered with their cups of sugary tea. It was about being footloose and fancy-free, not worrying about whether you could do the steps or not. Needless to say, no other Hindi song was allowed to be played with such gusto.
And if Madhuri Dixit became the nation’s “dhak dhak” girl, much of that credit would have to go to Saroj Khan. If Sridevi made the blue sari the immaculate benchmark of sex appeal, that originality, too, should be attributed to her. Bollywood had many male choreographers who played up the stereotypical requirement of projecting the film’s heroine — back then nobody used the term “female lead” — as the ultimate object of desire with gyrating thrusts and over-the-top expressions, the come-hither eyes and the not so suggestive and in-your-face gestures and pouts. But Khan changed all that, drawing you in but leaving a lot to your imagination. Even when the lyrics alerted the moral police of the time. Who can forget Madhuri’s dance number Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, the enactment of a girl’s desire to find somebody who would prize her heart over her body. And for all the censorship demands of a depraved culture police, the sequence actually was executed artistically, Khan overpowering the physicality of the composition with a felt ardour through Madhuri’s expressive eyes. In that sense, she retained the old world classicism she was trained in. But she also kept up with the times.
As the winds of liberalisation swept through, bringing the Western popular dance forms closer home via MTV, she broke out of her comfort zone and gave us Tamma Tamma Loge, picturised on Madhuri and a dance-challenged Sanjay Dutt in Thaanedar.
She could be mischievously naughty with double entendre folk songs as in Chane Ke Khet Mein (Anjaam) and be joyfully simple, artless and ride the crests of melody as in Radha Kaise Na Jale (Lagaan). But it is the dance-off in Devdas between Madhuri and Aishwarya Rai that is her crown as she blended classical dance forms to the dazzle and scale of Bollywood. Dola Re Dola fetched Khan her first National Award for an unmatched synchronicity of dance as art and celebration.
Little wonder then that her cult appeal outlasted the films and birthed a genre of Bollywood dance with studios mushrooming not only at home but abroad. Khan herself started the concept of online tutorials through her own TV show with instructional videos on why Bollywood song and dance sequences had to be dramatic and organic at the same time. Of course, she never endorsed the disconnected “item” numbers for cheap thrills. She signed up only when she knew her work would be a worthy sub-plot than a diversion. But then she could hold her own, having choreographed more than 2,000 hit songs, each distinct from the other and not the copycats that flood our consciousness these days. She patented the dignity of popular dance forms as an unbound spirit without prejudice.
Born as Nirmala Nagpal on November 22, 1948, she was a child of Partition. Her father was a Punjabi, her mother Sindhi. “My father had a flourishing business in Pakistan but he had to leave everything behind when he came to India. I was born here.” She changed her name because her father didn’t want the neighbourhood to know that she worked as a dancer in films, a profession that was looked down upon back then. She debuted in Bollywood as a child artiste but became an independent choreographer as early as 1974 with Geeta Mera Naam. She even choreographed a piece for The Gandhi Murder, starring actor Stephen Lang and Om Puri.
She learnt dancing under the guidance of her mentor B. Sohanlal, whom she married at 13 despite the huge age difference between them. The couple had four children. One of them, Raju Khan, is now a choreographer in his own right. But Sohanlal abandoned her and in 1975, she married businessman Sardar Roshan Khan, with whom she had a daughter. It was at this time that she embraced Islam willingly. All of these experiences toughened her up and informed the well of emotions inside her. While she talked tough in the world, she poured herself out in her acts. And when the actor couldn’t emote, she had her tricks. Shah Rukh Khan once recalled how she couldn’t elicit a certain lovestruck emotion from Kajol during a song sequence in Baazigar because the actor wasn’t convinced. So the choreographer simply asked SRK to pinch her so that she could instinctively wince. That was Khan, using the tried and tested to appeal to mass consumption while having the class to know by how many degrees to tweak it and make it an everlasting cinematic moment.
Saturday, 04 July 2020 | Rinku Ghosh | New Delhi
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