The girl with the dancing eyes
Instagram | Saroj Khan Official

Nidhi Tuli’s documentary, The Saroj Khan Story, threw up an astonishing factoid via an interview with Sharada Ramanathan, director of the 2007 Tamil film Sringaram, for which Saroj Khan choreographed pure classical dance numbers. Ramanathan recalls that for one of the songs, she came up with sixteen different facial expressions for a single line. “We were speechless!”

Which is just one reason why Saroj Khan was considered such a brilliant choreographer. After a hugely successful career, came a time when the adaayen, the nazakat she brought to film songs were no longer required, and newer choreographers with their steps derived from western music videos edged her out. Now classical dance training is not considered mandatory for movie heroines, and in today’s cinema, women are not expected to speak through their eyes. That coyness is quite outmoded in these days of the overt sex appeal, which is not necessarily a bad thing; every age has its own rituals of romance. Today, the chhed chhad that was a part of courtship in the old movies would be labelled stalking. Saroj Khan believed sexiness lay in the face, which is why she could give the leading ladies bust-heaving, hip-swaying dance moves without a hint of crudity. “Madhuri (Dixit) can wear anything, do anything and still look innocent,” she said, “and that one (naming another actress), could be covered from head to toe and still look vulgar.”

Saroj Khan was special because of her dancing skills, no dispute there, but also because she came up to her eminent position in a male-dominated film industry the hard way. Even in the post #MeToo age, showbiz is tough on women; when Saroj Khan entered the studios, she was a child of eight. Like many actresses of the time — the famous ones and the failures — she had to work to support a large family (parents, four sisters and a brother). They were uprooted by the Partition and landed in Mumbai with almost nothing. She says in the documentary, that most days they ate just one meal and slept hungry; a neighbour who ran a street food stall would give them the leftover pakoras and bread, which was their staple diet during her childhood.

But she could dance and how! When her mother saw her dancing with her shadow at the age of two, she feared the child was mad and took her to a doctor, who suggested a career in films. It was her natural grace that gave her a break in films, small roles at first, and then as a group dancer. She was better than most of the lead actresses behind whom she danced, it’s just bad luck that she never made it as a dancing star.

What is an open secret in the industry is the exploitation of women, which was much worse in the past. When Saroj Khan reportedly said in an interview, “This has been happening since time immemorial. Somebody or the other tries to get cozy with every girl. Even people in the government do it. Why are you after the film industry? At least the industry provides employment. After all, it isn’t as if you are raped and abandoned,” she was trolled mercilessly and forced to apologise. But she was speaking from her own observations and experiences.

The group dancers and junior artistes – rudely called extras back in the day – needed work and could not fend off advances by men with power over their livelihoods. But even lead actresses had to attach themselves to a male director or star – even if he was married – so that other men would leave them alone, because the industry has this respect bhabhiji culture – single women are fair game! So many actresses got married and quit, as soon as they could.

It did not seem strange to anybody that a 13-year-old girl was married to a 43-year-old dance master, B. Sohanlal, who already had a wife and four kids. She says she loved him and that he was her guru who taught her everything she knew about dance. Anybody who does not know the circumstances that two people are caught in cannot judge, but today, morally and legally, this would be considered a crime. A girl who gives birth at the age of 14 is a child herself, but did she have a choice? Saroj Khan who never minced words on the sets was reticent about her personal life. (No photograph of her second husband, Sardar Roshan Khan can be found on the net.)

In the documentary, she makes the startling revelation that she also worked as a nurse, stenographer and make-up ‘man’ (women were not allowed to work in the field of film make-up till a Supreme Court ruled against this arbitrary rule as late as 2014, because work as a dancer must have been insufficient.

That Saroj Khan rose against all the odds women had to overcome in the film industry and became an independent choreographer after being an assistant for eleven years, is a tribute to her courage, resilience and talent. So good was she at her work, that after the Ek Do Teen number in Tezaab (1988), Filmfare instituted an award for Best Choreography, that Saroj Khan won eight times; she also won a National Award thrice.

One observed her on the sets many times, this diminutive woman who had crashed the glass ceiling of Bollywood, and while at work, she imitated the kind of male authoritative behaviour that she must have seen in her time as a group dancer. She chewed paan masala, was called “Masterji” like the male choreographers; before and after the shift, the dancers touched her feet. She just waved at them imperiously, because this fawning respect was not her due. The men got it, why not her? But she was also considerate, almost maternal, towards the young dancers in her troupe. She had been through that grind.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali says in the film, that for the song Maar Daala from his film Devdas (2002), everytime the words maar daala were repeated, she came up with a different expression or nuance which actress Madhuri Dixit replicated perfectly. Without being trained in classical or folk dance, she knew instinctively what was required to enhance a song. Her much-copied ‘hook steps’ are works of art in film choreography.

What was more admirable about her was that she always had a ready smile – she did not express any anger or bitterness about her past. If she confided about her life to anyone, the inside stories never came out — in those days, discretion was demanded and agreed to, for survival in the industry. Her mental strength can only be imagined. Once a male star made a derogatory remark about her, couching his words as a joke — she just laughed and said, “Chal hatt”. She must have inured herself to hurt, or like Subhash Ghai commented, must have channelled her life’s experiences into the dances so many leading ladies (and some men) built their careers on. Who else could come up with sixteen different expressions for a single line?

The term ‘end of an era’ is often used casually, but it applies to Saroj Khan — there will be imitators, but there will never be another like her.

The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.

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