Bollywood's first female choreographer Saroj Khan, whose sizzling dance routines breathed life into hundreds of films, died Friday, triggering further heartbreak in an industry already reeling from a string of recent deaths.
Khan choreographed more than 2,000 numbers during a 40-year career that saw her work with superstars like Madhuri Dixit and Anil Kapoor to create dazzling song-and-dance routines that are a distinctive feature of Hindi films.
A spokeswoman for Guru Nanak hospital in Mumbai told AFP that Khan, 71, was admitted to the facility on Thursday evening after complaining of respiratory problems.
She "was declared dead at approximately 2:30 am" after suffering cardiac arrest, the spokeswoman said.
Born Nirmala Nagpal, she joined the industry as a child actor aged just three but soon took to dancing instead, starting out as a backup dancer before becoming an assistant choreographer at 13.
She reportedly changed her name to Saroj to avoid the censure of conservative relatives who did not approve of her career choice.
She also fell in love with B. Sohanlal, her much older mentor who was a married father of four.
Stung by his refusal to leave his first wife, Khan, who had converted to Islam, became a single mother to their two children while still in her teens and walked out of the relationship to start working on her own.
- 'Amazingly talented' -
She got her break in 1974 with "Geeta Mera Naam" ("Geeta Is My Name"), becoming the first female choreographer in Bollywood.
She had no formal training in classical dance, but learnt on the job and hit the big time in the 1980s when her collaborations with two of Bollywood's top stars, Dixit and Sridevi, became chart-toppers.
The 1988 number "Ek Do Teen" ("One Two Three"), choreographed by Khan, made Dixit a star overnight, and the actress was among the first to pay tribute to the woman she called her teacher.
"I'm devastated by the loss of my friend and guru, Saroj Khan. Will always be grateful for her work in helping me reach my full potential in dance. The world has lost an amazingly talented person," Dixit tweeted.
Khan dominated Bollywood's dance floors over the next decade, churning out hits such as 1987's "Hawa Hawaii", 1993's "Choli ke Peeche" ("Behind the Blouse") and 2002's "Dola re Dola" ("I Swayed").
"You gave us and the industry, rhythm, style, grace of movement", Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan wrote on Instagram.
"When she danced it was like watching a whole book! Everything that she wanted to say was there so clearly on her face and in her body language," actress Kajol wrote.
"She made dance look easy almost like anybody can dance, a huge loss for the industry," tweeted superstar Akshay Kumar.
She won three National Awards for her choreography in the Bollywood movies "Devdas" and "Jab We Met" ("When We Met") and for the Tamil film "Sringaram: Dance of Love".
Actress Kareena Kapoor, who starred in "Jab We Met", said Khan taught her "to enjoy dancing, smile and smile through the eyes".
"There can never be another," she wrote on Instagram.
Her last film was 2019's "Kalank" ("Blemish") starring Dixit.
She was also a popular presence on television, hosting an instructional dance show called "Nachle Ve" ("Dance") from 2008 to 2011.
In her introduction to the programme, she said: "Dance is my life. If there is no dance, there is no Saroj Khan."
Last month Bollywood was rocked by the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput aged just 34. Police said he had taken his own life.
In April two luminaries, Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, died within days of each other.
Wajid Khan, one of the top composers of Bollywood dance numbers, died at 42 from coronavirus at the end of May. Not long afterwards celebrated filmmaker Basu Chatterjee passed away aged 90.