Growing up mixed-race, queer and femme, how Saroj Khan provided me the keys to the vehicle of my body
In hindsight, I was always meant to fall in love with Saroj Khan. So here’s our convoluted love story: are you ready?
In hindsight, I was always meant to fall in love with Saroj Khan. It was written in my naseeb. And I did — truly, deeply, madly — even before I knew of her. So, here’s our convoluted love story: are you ready?
My Nepali grandmother was a notorious Bollywood fan — the kind that saw Mumtaz but completely adored Tun Tun. She was always at ‘the first day, first show’ of every film. And every activity of hers was accompanied by a song. She had good intentions but wasn’t the neighbourhood’s nightingale, so she’d say that she preferred the songs that had “some raftaar” the kind that moved like fast trains rather than betray her lack of singing talent. Her favourite one that became a permanent part of her oeuvre was “Aplam Chaplam Chaplayee Re” from the 1955’s Azaad. This is all happening in 1990 and I’m a four-year-old clapping to her singing this song (listen to it, you’ll automatically start too) and dancing around her in the kitchen, her lush garden, at the washing stone under the Raspuri mango tree, or anywhere else she happened to be singing. Even to this day, if either of us even hums this tune, we start clapping, I pretend dance and we giggle like two highschoolers.
At this age, I’d already allowed Saroj Khan to dictate every move of mine: I had already learnt the bright eyes, the prancing eyebrows, the quivering lips, the shimmy shoulders and the naughty from Sridevi in “Hawa Hawai” from 1987’s Mr. India. (And yes, to those of you who aren’t ever asleep, even then, I had noticed the background dancers in blackface but I’d been acclimatised through the images of the “golliwog” in my second-hand Noddy books. You see: colonialism makes racism easier to swallow.) Every time I heard the song, I would break into the dance always exaggerating the wonderful way that Sridevi flapped her hands at the wrists around her neck with her knees bent. Later: I would adopt the sparkle, the spirit and sporty from Madhuri Dixit in “Ek Do Teen” from 1988’s Tezaab into my own dance vocabulary. And I still hadn’t heard of the name Saroj Khan.
Over these many years, as I have become older, I have come to see the mischief, seduction and naivety but also the ridiculously gifted mind that stitched together these dance sequences. But then: I still didn’t know who had taught me the sudden coyness when the man I was ogling met my eye, or the batting of my eyelids at another, or the hitching up of my pants to jump over a puddle in the rain or even throwing a mock tantrum that would instantly get my grandmother to say, “Stop being so filmi!”. And as I grew older, hurt turned into kindness, and I could polish off the words used to tease me and actually dress in them. Girly! Sissy! Freak! Chakka! Ombat! Gandu! Homo! At these times, I’d escape into Sridevi or Madhuri: I could be sexy, coy, girly and very good at something, without knowing that she — Saroj Khan — had animated them as she had done me.
A little more than a decade ago, on a ride down a YouTube rabbit-hole, I watched (for the first time?) the dance sequence of the sisters Sayee and Subbulakshmi performing Bharatanatyam in “Aplam Chaplam Chaplayee Re” — my grandmother’s favourite song — with something extra and quick Googling answered the desperation to know who had choreographed this superb sequence. It was B Sohanlal and his brother B Hiralal — Kathak exponents of the Benaras Gharana from Jaipur who had moved to [then] Bangalore to teach dance and to be close to Chennai where they worked in the Tamil film industry. The duo was part of a growing movement of dance masters that decidedly changed choreography in Hindi movies forever. One that introduced integral elements from the classical dances, its ability to show the story of the lyrics through nritta (pure dance), abhinaya (facial expressions), nrithya (a blending of the two) and karanas (statuesque poses). It was this twist to film dance choreography brought by these brothers that drew the eye of the young Saroj Khan, who had been a child artiste and was a chorus dancer then. Once on a film set, she caught the eye of Sohanlal with her talent to easily grasp dance moves. She was only thirteen, he quickly made her his choreography assistant and also secretly married her — he was 41, and already married, with children, at the time.
Armed with this tidbit, I wanted to know more, and I stumbled upon Nidhi Tuli’s documentary The Saroj Khan Story produced by PSBT India in 2012. I rewatched it this month, and it just wasn’t enough, I still left needing to know more about her at the end. She used to be Nirmala Nagpal, she moved from Lahore to Bombay during Partition, her father went from riches to rags. He passed away leaving them with nothing, her single mother brought up Nirmala and her siblings on onion bhajis and ladi pav donated to them at the end of the day by a kind street vendor. Nirmala used to dance with her shadow to pass the time, which worried her mother who dragged her to a doctor thinking that she was crazy. Luckily the doctor worked with clients in the film industry and suggested her mother make her dance in films. And too many trials and tribulations later (watch the documentary!) she became Saroj Khan.
But then, I asked myself: What was this cloying social-media-platform-content-feed demand to know the details of everyone’s private life? Hadn’t she shown me (us?) enough already? And she definitely has. I can’t seem to clearly remember parts of my childhood without using her as a cornerstone to (re)make those memory palaces. In my teens (when I was allowed to listen to this song), “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai” awakened these feelings and desires that I have only come to name over these many years. I can’t seem to perfectly place the origin of these little gestures or expressions that I make when I’m annoyed with someone or even anything else except to know that it emerged from imitating a filmi moment. And who had engineered these superlative, timeless, insanely filmi moments? Saroj Khan.
When I use the word femme with reference to myself: I know the ways that she has contributed to the nuanced, finer definition that allows it to mean something particular to me. Over the past decade, in learning of the ways she navigated a maze that wasn’t designed for her has added heft to my definition too. While the critics of Saroj Khan have dragged her along with Hindi cinema’s portrayal of women, I think she was simply collateral damage. Instead, I think we should see her for making moves that in copying, rejecting or subverting them, each one of us has happened to chance upon something anew about ourselves.
However, there’s this moment in Nidhi Tuli’s documentary that made me want to slap every man in the world. In 1988, the Filmfare Awards introduced a category to honour choreography for the first time. Everyone knew it was to award Saroj Khan for “Ek Do Teen” and of course, she won. After her two-line acceptance speech, a penguin-like Subhash Ghai says, “Three cheers to this little fat girl who dances better than the many stars. Cheers!” and awkwardly cuts the air with his raised arm. It is so brief in the documentary that I feel evil for holding on to it but that’s precisely the kind of learnt, systemic prejudice that Saroj Khan constantly battled in her daily life. (She must have been exhausted and fed up of silencing her detractors with her skills, I know so many of us are.)
Everybody around her in the film industry thought she’d done so well — becoming Bollywood’s first female choreographer with a career spanning over 40 years — despite her circumstances, her gender, her physicality. It is always the addendum to her many triumphs. And while they were busy, occupied with those things, she moved with raftaar but it wasn’t a compromise for her immense talent. Growing up mixed-race, queer, femme in Bangalore, through these female actors, Saroj provided me with the keys to the vehicle that was my own body. She showed me the ways it can be employed to turn thought into action, word into flesh. Thank you, Masterji!
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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