Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan died in Mumbai on Friday of cardiac arrest. In her passing away, Hindi film industry has lost one of its most beloved and respected dance exponents. It would not be wrong to say that the magic of Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi would be incomplete without her.
Saroj (born Nirmala Nagpal) was born in Mumbai in 1948, after her parents migrated from Pakistan after the Partition of India. Only a child, she began her career as a child artiste in the late 1950s as a background dancer. Soon she began learning dance from the well-known dance master of the day – B Sohanlal.
Saroj’s first break as an independent choreographer came only in 1974 with Geeta Mera Naam. However, from then on, she would have to wait for the next 13 years before her first breakthrough song, Mr India’s Hawa Hawai in 1987, would appear on the horizon. And what a success it was – as Sridevi danced her heart out, matching her comic expressions with Saroj’s polka and jive dance steps and Laxmikant Pyarelal’s foot-tapping music. Saroj had arrived. If you have marvelled at the sensuality of Kaate Nahin Kat Te from Mr India, then the credit goes to Saroj as well.
Saroj’s best works are arguably with late Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit even as she collaborated with practically all the biggest stars in her long career. With Sridevi, she would work in films like Nagina (1986) and Chandni (1989). Recall songs like Main Teri Dushman, Dushman Tu Mera (Nagina) and you will know how Saroj would work wonders with folk traditions and blended them with classical methods.
Saroj deserves credit for giving ‘idea of sensuality’ a place in Bollywood. After Mr India, she again directed Sridevi in Yash Chopra’s Chandni. Those alluring chiffon sari-clad Sridevi images from Switzerland as she sings to her love would never have materialised had it not been for Saroj’s magical touch. It’s a pity that a cursory glance at YouTube for many of these songs mention all other details (lyricist, music director, actors, film, director) but fail to mention the choreographer. Such a travesty!
Saroj’s legacy would, however, be written only after her association with Madhuri Dixit. Apart from her acting skills, if there is one phenomenon that is attributed to Madhuri, then it is dance and the wind beneath her wings, so as to say, was Saroj Khan. Through the ’90s, Madhuri would dominate the Indian film screen – all her films would have songs with dance numbers, with a majority of them choreographed by Saroj.
Think of them – Ek Do Teen (Tezaab), Tamma Tamma Loge (Thanedaar, 1990), Dhak Dhak Karne Laga (Beta, 1992), Choli Pe Peeche Kya (Khalnayak, 1993) – which are still hugely popular and, at least, two of them have been remade, should give us an idea of their collective clout. They would collaborate in Gulab Gang and Kalank again.
After dominating the scene through the ’90s, Saroj’s fortunes suddenly took a rude jolt with the emergence of young dance artists like Farah Khan and Shiamak Davar. With films like Dil Toh Paagal Hai and Joh Jeeta Wahi Sikandar, Saroj’s demand began to ebb. Even Rajshri Productions did not opt for Saroj in Hum Aapke Hain Koun.
Saroj’s lasting legacy will always be the manner in which she could utilise the facial expressions of her dancers to craft popular, fast-paced songs. With younger choreographers, energy, verve and a degree of athletism would be their hallmark. Saroj was cast in a different dye – while her works fell within the ambit of populist framework, she left enough scope for the camera to lovingly capture the expressions of her lead dancer. Hence, her dances spoke; they were not merely visual treats.
In her passing away, an era of Bollywood dancing has come to close. So long, masterji.
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