Farah Khan, Vaibhavi Merchant, Ahmed Khan, Remo D'Souza remember Saroj Khan's contribution to Bollywood dance
Leading choreographers Farah Khan, Vaibhavi Merchant, Ahmed Khan, Remo D'Souza discuss how Masterji brought dignity to Bollywood dance and its exponents.
The bustling set fell silent as she hollered "Sound". The beats of Choli ke peechhe filled the air, as Masterji — as she was fondly addressed — with her dupatta tied firmly around her waist, showed the next set of steps to Madhuri Dixit. Choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant says her first memory of Saroj Khan never quite left her. To the then 13-year-old Merchant, Khan was the woman who was entrusted with the most vibrant facet of a film — the song and dance.
"Though my grandfather B Hiralalji and his brother B Sohanlalji [Khan's guru] were famous choreographers, my understanding of choreography came about with Ek do teen [Tezaab, 1988]. It was only after the song that there was so much media attention on the choreographer. Sarojji was a legend who brought the art to the forefront," says Merchant, who finally got the opportunity to work with her idol on Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa 3.
Merchant believes Khan's gumption and glorious success story encouraged women to set foot in the film world. "She was a path-breaker in an industry, which was male-dominated at the time. She is the first woman choreographer who left her competitors way behind," she says of the artiste who dominated the Bollywood dance scene in the '80s and '90s.
Farah Khan and Vaibhavi Merchant
Khan unwittingly played a key role in paving the way for another Bollywood choreographer. It is well-known that the then-assistant choreographer Farah Khan stepped in to give shape to Aamir Khan's Pehla nasha (Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, 1992) when the legendary choreographer was unavailable. "When I entered the industry, I did not face gender discrimination because the reigning choreographer was a woman. She was a woman of formidable tenacity," says Farah.
But Khan's story is much more than that of a woman earning her rightful place in a man's world. The veteran changed the landscape of Bollywood, infusing the Hindi film dance with grace and discipline. With numbers like Hawa hawai (Mr India, 1987) and Dhak dhak (Beta, 1992), she showed that Bollywood heroines could be spirited, sensuous and every shade in between. "She had a knack for extracting the required expressions from actors," explains Farah.
Merchant echoes her sentiment, stating that Khan could recognise every actor's strength. "Since dance was not Sanjay's [Dutt] forte, she rehearsed with him for a month on Tamma tamma [Thanedaar, 1990]. Usually, the credit for a finely crafted dance number goes to the actor, but it is the technician who has designed the steps to make the song look effortless and magical. Sarojji could extract the finest acts from Madhuri, Sridevi, Meenakshi [Seshadri], Rekhaji and Hema Maliniji."
Saroj Khan with Ahmed Khan
Choreographer-turned-director Ahmed Khan credits his career to the veteran. He remembers meeting her on the set of Mr India (1987), in which he was a child actor.
"After Mr India, I told her I want to be a choreographer, and joined her troupe at 16. She would take me to sets of the films she was working on, and I learnt on the job. She always said that a choreographer must not pay attention to anything except his steps and expressions. We need the support of camera angles and locations, but she could pull off a song purely on her expressions."
Saroj Khan with Remo D'souza
Remo D'Souza, who began his career under Khan's wing, considers himself fortunate that he collaborated on her swan song, Tabaah ho gaye (Kalank, 2019). D'Souza recounts, "Madhuri ma'am asked if we could have Sarojji on board for the song. I was lucky to serve as the assistant choreographer. On days, she couldn't walk properly on the set as her knees hurt. But as soon the music came on, she was better than Madhuri ma'am."
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