Saroj Khan, ace choreographer, was captured in a documentary. Saroj Khan, the person, reached far beyond

“It has been a long struggle with many ups and downs in my personal life,” Saroj Khan told Nidhi Tuli. “The dances I compose and direct do not show the tears and the heartbreaks in my life.”

Shoma A Chatterji July 03, 2020 14:16:11 IST
Saroj Khan, ace choreographer, was captured in a documentary. Saroj Khan, the person, reached far beyond

Veteran Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan passed away on 3 July 2020 of cardiac arrest. She was 71. The three-time National Award winner had choreographed some of the most memorable songs in Hindi cinema, and her collaborations with actress Madhuri Dixit led to dance numbers that are considered iconic in the landscape of Hindi cinema. A documentary called 'The Saroj Khan Story', by filmmaker Nidhi Tuli, paid homage to Saroj Khan's many contributions to the cinema of India.

The following excerpt is from 'Filming Reality: The Independent Documentary Movement in India' by freelance journalist, author and film scholar Shoma A Chatterji. It has been republished here with permission from SAGE India.

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Saroj Khan has broken every rule in the choreography book. She doesn't care about glamour... She is brazen, bold, uncompromising and often, quite rude and ruthless. She has been a single mother for most of her life. She is also famous, successful and rich in the cut-throat, male-dominated world of Indian cinema.

A young woman decided to pick slices from her life and present these as a documentary tribute. Never before in Indian cinema has tribute been paid to an Indian film choreographer in the form of a documentary. The Saroj Khan Story is Nidhi Tuli’s 57-minute celluloid tribute to Saroj Khan. The film was screened in the documentary section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.

Saroj Khan’s career kicked off in the early 1950s. She began as a child artist, with dancing as the talent she was gifted in. The upward climb was difficult, but did happen ultimately. She started as a member of the background chorus and graduated as an assistant to the choreographer, which in turn brought her in contact with accomplished dancer-actresses like Vyjayanthimala. When she became an independent choreographer, she worked with the legendary Madhuri Dixit. Later, she continued to create, compose and choreograph dance numbers for Aishwarya Rai and Sonakshi Sinha.

Says Nidhi about her motivation in choosing this subject, “The Saroj Khan Story began as a search for the genius behind one of the greatest choreographers Indian cinema has ever produced. What remains is a deeply personal story of determination, passion, extraordinary skill and the sheer will to survive that is both intimate and inspiring. I was a fan of hers like most people who know about her choreography are, but it was during the making of the film that I discovered that she is a genius and she wears that so lightly; she is a perfectionist and a very passionate dancer.”

Nidhi’s camera focuses on Saroj Khan as she narrates her slow and rickety rise in filmdom from a dancer in the back row of the chorus to a top choreographer, who directed every other leading lady in Bollywood. The film opens on Saroj riding in her car, talking into her cell phone till it cuts to a close-up of her at home with walls filled with photographs and portraits of herself and family members. She looks back wistfully into her past, which includes the unceasing sickness of a daughter who passed away later. However, Saroj-ji refuses to be bogged down by or gather sympathy for her private grief.

“It has been a long struggle with many ups and downs in my personal life,” she says. “The dances I compose and direct do not show the tears and the heartbreaks in my life.”

She was betrayed in love by her mentor and guru who left her when she became pregnant. However, she carried the emotional, financial and professional burden singly. Her repertoire  of having choreographed for more than 200 films ranges from the purely classical numbers in the Tamil film Sringaram — Dance of Love (2005) and the graceful numbers executed by Aishwarya Rai in Subhash Ghai’s Taal (1999), to the sizzling duet performed by the lead pair in Rowdy Rathore (2012).

Sringaram (2007) — a period film set in the 19th century on the life of a devadasi — was directed by a noted dancer, Saradha Ramanathan, and produced by classical dancer Padmini Ravi. Aditi Rao Hydari, a talented Bharatanatyam dancer, played the role of the devadasi. Though the producer and director were both celebrated dancers, they chose Saroj Khan for the choreography. She won the National Award for Best Choreography for her work in the film, one of her string of three.

“The Madhuri Dixit number ‘Maar Dala’ in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002) had the refrain ‘maar dala’ four times in each stanza. I convinced and taught Madhuri to execute each refrain differently for each of the four times. This spread over to three or four stanzas and each time, she expressed this refrain differently,” says Saroj Khan in the documentary. This choreography too got Saroj the National Award, following the ones she’d received for her work in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) alongside the Filmfare Award. Another milestone was Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).

Saroj Khan — the person — however, reaches far beyond the documentary.

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Filming Reality: The Independent Documentary Movement in India by Shoma A Chatterji | 2015 | 320 pages | Hardcover | Rs 995 | (9789351502876) | SAGE India

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