Background dancer to ace choreographer: A look at Saroj Khan's Bollywood journey
Background dancer to ace choreographer: A look at Saroj Khan's Bollywood journey

Suguna Sundaram, the former Editor of Stardust and CineBlitz magazines, writes about the ‘mother of all choreographers’

Still reeling from the recent loss of veteran Rishi Kapoor and powerhouse Irrfan Khan in April, and the tragic suicide of wonder boy Sushant Singh in June, Bollywood took yet another blow, when multiple National Award winner, ace choreographer Saroj Khan, breathed her last, due to cardiac arrest.

She had been admitted to Guru Nanak Hospital in Mumbai in the third week of June, for breathlessness and was in a critical condition, but tested negative for Covid19. The end came in the wee hours of 3rd July.

Born Nirmala Nagpal, in a newly free India (1948) and into extremely humble circumstances, she entered the industry at the tender age of three as a child artiste, and started her journey into the world of Bollywood dancing at age 12 as a background dancer.

She had choreographed her first dance number by 14, and Miss Twinkle-toes discovered that she was not very popular, because her sheer footwork threatened the balance of many a Masterji, all of who were males. She was the first legitimate woman to set foot into that bastion, and wowed people with her lightning quick grasp of movement and song in synchrony.

Moreover, she made an extremely good teacher, and at 14, was teaching dance moves on sets to the likes of Helen and Vyjayanthi Mala and later, even Hema Malini, all in their reigning prime years.

Wedded to her Masterji at 13, Saroj found herself a mother at 14, but without a spouse due to the said Guruji (B Sohanlal) refusing to acknowledge their marriage or give his name to their son. So, for the next few years, it was back to background dancing for Saroj who just wanted to dance and bring up her son. It was an unplanned chance that Saroj, later working as an assistant, got to choreograph when her Masterji was away working on another film. The late actress Sadhna took Saroj under her wing and got her a break in her own film Geeta Mera Naam in 1974.

Along with her struggles, she went through another marriage and had two daughters from Roshan Khan, her second husband. Saroj choreographed for many films but her struggle to gain acknowledgement was only validated in the late 80s, with Tezaab (1988) for the song Ek Do Teen, (which increased the collective heartbeat and pulse rate of one half of the nation’s populace) where she worked with Madhuri Dixit, and also won her first award.

Tezaab set her career on fire and there was no looking back. Saroj graduated to being called Masterji, a title that was a first for a woman in Bollywood, and that remains her greatest acknowledgement. With big films seeking her out, the Hindi films of the nineties redefined their definition of dance, because of the vigour, grace and beauty Saroj brought to her choreographies.

Saroj created magic on screen when she worked with Madhuri, Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai, Karisma Kapoor, even Kareena Kapoor. Her movements were sensuous and graceful and her facial expressions whilst dancing (which she insisted the heroines follow) were probably what give many a heroine their claim to acting. She was the favourite choreographer of ace directors from Subhash Ghai to Sanjay Leela Bhansali. And it was thanks to Saroj Khan that films started being sold due to the ‘song and dance routine’. Saroj Khan brought recognition to the word ‘Choreography’. Her personal tally ran to over 2000 songs.

The new millennium saw the rise of dance reality shows, and Saroj Khan was accorded the task of being Judge and mentor in the most popular dance shows on leading channels.

This gutsy lady was the original firebrand, known for her colourful swearing, and brutally honest comments. They did not spare the biggest of the stars. But she had no artifice, never wore two faces. What you saw was what you got. Saroj Khan embraced everyone who came to her with open arms and a warmth that touched one deep. She was feared, and loved by most of the industry who had the good fortune to work with her. Her dance also came from her heart, she never had a day of formal training in any dance form, and she could jive, twist and waltz with as much grace as do kathak chakkars, or dance with a khatta nimbuda!

The ghungroos of the industry have fallen silent with Saroj Khan’s passing – she was the ‘Mother of all choreographers’, the most vibrant and versatile dancer the industry has seen in decades. She was the ‘Dancing Queen’.

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