Saroj Khan: A trailblazer who helped the stars to dance their way into the hearts of millions passes away

The three time National Award winner Saroj Khan was credited for choreographing more than 2,000 songs. She worked with both Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit amid their rivalries

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The image of Sridevi drenched in an almost-blue saree crooning to the voice of Alisha Chinai as a now-here and now-nowhere Anil Kapoor wooed her in a much-mellowed voice of Kishore Kumar in Mr India crossed my mind on the morning of Friday, which broke with the passing away of choreographer Saroj Khan in a rain-soaked day in Mumbai, where she had spent most of her life. Much like Sridevi, one of her favourite actors whom she choreographed in numerous films during the 80s and 90s, India woke up to the news of Saroj Khan’s death.

The 80’s and 90’s were very difficult times for Hindi cinema. This was the decade when the big three—Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor— were well beyond their prime. Kapoor was dead, Kumar did selective films, while Anand went on his path making films that very few watched. Even the generation that came after them— Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee, et al— had almost retired. Even Rajesh Khanna was past his glory days and the angry young man from a decade before, Amitabh Bachchan, was somewhere trying to balance between acting and politics.

Socio-politically too India was not very stable. That was the decade that saw the emergence of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), acts of terrorism in Punjab, Assam, other parts of the North East, separatist movement in Darjeeling, rise of regional satraps who would hold the key to Indian political establishment for almost three decades.

Dance—which Satyajit Ray considered the weakest art form— can trace its roots in Hindi cinema to the 1913 film Raja Harishchandra. Dance never quite left the Hindi film screen. Invariably, the ability to dance was considered an added advantage for an actress say, a Hema Malini.

Saroj Khan was born Nirmala Nagpal—her parents came from Pakistan post partition leaving all their wealth behind. Even as a toddler, she broke into dances and soon to help the family kitchen run, started appearing in films as a child. She was barely 13, when the legendary dance director B Sohanlal took her as his assistant (with him she had a relationship while still a minor. Sohanlal was in his 40s then and had two children). Saroj married Sardar Roshan Khan and took on his surname.

In the 1963 film Dil Hi To Hai, Saroj Khan, still a teenager, got her first song as an independent choreographer. By the end of the 1960s, Saroj Khan was picked up by Sadhana as her personal choreographer. She had films and songs in between, some of which are still popular like the Mohammad Rafi number Main Jatt Yamla Pagla Diwana picturised on Dharmendra, who could move his limbs only in action sequences.

Success for Saroj Khan was still about a decade away though she did important films like Hero, Vidhaata with Subhas Ghai. Then came the 1986 film Nagina, with Sridevi’s snake-like moves catapulting the film to a big hit. The following year came another Sridevi hit in Mr India.

A relatively unknown actor, in 1988, hit the screens answering to the call of Mohini. That actor was Madhuri Dixit, the film Tezaab and the song Ek Do Teen. While, the song is definitely amongst her most successful choreographies, the film also established the rivalry between the reigning leading lady Sridevi and the challenger Madhuri. Even in an otherwise forgettable film like Sailaab, people remember the song Humko Aajkal Hai Intezaar featuring Madhuri.

Saroj Khan continued to work with both the actors– Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit as well as getting the steps correct to other newbies in the late 90’s and 2000’s. Her choreography of the song Dola re Dola in Sanjay Leela Bhansali, featuring two of the most beautiful and talented actors Madhuri and Aishwarya Rai, fetched her a National Award. She went on to win three National Awards.

She had her fair share of controversy, too, with the release of Choli ke Peechhe Kya Hai in Khalnayak. While the lyrics bordered on the vulgar, Madhuri’s sensuous moves as designed by Saroj Khan created more fans.

Throughout her career she worked with the A-listers and then left everything behind, mostly disillusioned with the industry at the turn that dance in films had taken. Saroj Khan described it as vulgar. She was also among the first to raise the red-flag on the rising pressure on children to perform in televised dance competitions, along with actor Jaaved Jaaferi.

Filmfare had to create a best choreography award for her. On Friday, at her funeral, there were only two others from outside the family. Though there were flowing tributes on the social media.

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