'Bitter-sweet': Saroj Khan was ruthless, ambitious yet heartbroken, grieving

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Ek do teen… a galvanic countdown to a new superstar, a new era…

Kate nahin katte yeh din yeh raat… an erotic encounter with an ‘invisible’ lover…

Na jaane kahan se aayi hai… a playful downpour of love…

Choli ke peeche kya hai… risqué yet utterly riveting…

Dhak dhak karne laga… of throbbing heartbeats and thriving hormones…

Nimbooda nimbooda… a tangy ballad of celebration…

Dola re dola… a dazzling duel of divas…

…Choreographer Saroj Khan curated the concealed sensuality in Indian culture and folklore and composed poetry on 70mm. Blending Western forms like hip-hop, salsa, ballroom, fusion, folk… with classical mudras and movements, she created a style dubbed as the ‘Bollywood gharana’.

MUMBAI, INDIA - DECEMBER 02: Saroj Khan attends the set of new real tv show of 9X channel on December 02, 2007 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Prodip Guha/Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - DECEMBER 02: Saroj Khan attends the set of new real tv show of 9X channel on December 02, 2007 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Prodip Guha/Getty Images)

Superstars Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit owe much of their stardust to Saroj’s tantalizing dances, which have now become cinematic heirloom. In fact, Madhuri’s being a showstopper in several reality dance shows finds its validation in her paradigmatic repertoire of dances courtesy Saroj Khan.

Lil’ Saroj began her career as a tomboy in dance troupes. She became the breadwinner of a family, which often made do with the leftover bhajias given by a kind hawker… After years of sweat, a ferocious Saroj tore into the male bastion to become the first female choreographer, making both male and female superstars ‘toe the line’. “I was in a man’s job, trying to get a foothold. And I didn’t give up,” said Saroj (Jaipur TEDx Talk in 2019), who composed around 2,000 songs over 40 years.

Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan (L) hugs actress Madhuri Dixit after receiving a special award for Best Choreographer in Last 20 Years, during the 20th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards at NSCI Dome in Mumbai on September 18, 2019. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)
Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan (L) hugs actress Madhuri Dixit after receiving a special award for Best Choreographer in Last 20 Years, during the 20th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards at NSCI Dome in Mumbai on September 18, 2019. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP) (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

That she was revered as ‘Masterji’ only spells her power to call the shots. Not only did her masterstroke Ek do teen (Tezaab) mark the introduction of the Best Choreography category at the Filmfare Awards, her subsequent demand for a hefty remuneration, raised the bar for peers.

On ground, she was fierce and unforgiving. Reportedly, when an actress failed to give the right expressions, she yelled on the mic, “Sex! It’s sex! Have you never had sex?” Film scholar Shoma A Chaterji once summed her: “Saroj Khan has broken every rule… She is brazen, bold, uncompromising... She is successful and rich in the cut-throat, male-dominated world of Indian cinema.”

Her personal life, however, remained largely turbulent. At 13, she fell in love with ‘Masterji’, B. Sohanlal, her senior by three decades. A black thread solemnised her whirlwind romance with him. 

At 14, she had his first baby. An already married Sohanlal eventually disappeared leaving her with two children to parent and later the grief of losing her 8-month daughter.

The sorrow was revisited when she lost another daughter decades later. Flagging health, callous competition and dearth of work… further deepened the shadows in her twilight years. 

“It’s been a long struggle with many ups and downs…The dances I compose do not show the tears and the heartbreaks in my life,” she said in Nidhi Tulli’s documentary The Saroj Khan Story.

What remained staunch was her reverence for her guru. “He gave me lots. I gave him nothing.”

What remained stanch was her fighting spirt. “Never depend on anybody.”

What remained steadfast was her love for her art. “I want to be born as Saroj Khan again.”

Kishanchand Sadhu Singh, a Punjabi was married to Noni a Sindhi. Kishanchand, who had a flourishing business in Pakistan, had to leave everything behind when they came to Bombay after the Partition (1947).

Their daughter, Nirmala Sadhu Singh (Saroj), was born on 22 November 1948 in India. Her mother grew anxious when she’d see her three-year-old daughter dance with her shadow. Fearing the girl was mentally unstable, she consulted a doctor. The doctor allayed her fears saying the child was just fond of dance and would be perfect for showbiz.

Three-year-old Nirmala played the young Shyama in Nazrana, where she had to sit on a ‘moon’ and sing. Her father changed her name from Nirmala to Saroj, as he feared censure from his orthodox relatives.

At 10, Saroj joined a dancing troupe. She featured as a background dancer in Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958) and as a ‘boy’ alongside Madhubala in Aiye meherban (Howrah Bridge 1958) among other outings.

Saroj, who was now a breadwinner, her father suffering from cancer, recalled an incident where she requested Shashi Kapoor (she was a dancer in one of his films) for money. “We have nothing at home for Diwali. My payment will come only after a week,” she told him. A generous Shashi emptied his pockets and gave her Rs 200. The little girl was overjoyed with the amount that helped her younger brother and three sisters celebrate the festival.

Saroj identified herself as Anglo-Indian. She had short hair and did Western dancing – jive, rock and roll and acrobatics. Soon, Saroj was noticed by renown classical dancer B. Sohanlal (of Sohanlal-Hiralal fame). Keen to be part of his group, she flaunted a braid and bindi.

Saroj became Sohanlal’s assistant at the age of 13. Among other heroines, she helped Helen and Vyjayanthimala rehearse their steps. During the rehearsal of Pawan deewani (Dr Vidya 1962), an impressed Vyjayanthimala once gifted Rs 21 to young Saroj as a gesture of appreciation.

At 14, Saroj choreographed her first song, Nutan’s Nigahein milane ko jee chahta hai (Dil Hi Toh Hai 1963), in the absence of Sohanlal.

Her break as an independent choreographer came at 26 with Sadhana’s directorial debut Geeta Mera Naam (1974). In the ’70s, she did films like Dharmendra-Hema Malini’s Pratiggya (Jat yamla pagla deewana), Dost, Maa... After a break she choreographed the song Pyaar ka imtihan for Subhash Ghai’s Vidhata (1982). Soon she was on board for Ghai’s Hero (1983), followed by Karma, Ram Lakhan, Khalnayak, Pardes, Taal, Yaadein and Kisna (between 1986-2005).

Her association with Sridevi was momentous. Main teri dushman from Nagina (1986) upped the popularity of the star as did the seductive Kaate nahin katte from Mr India (1987). “Only Sridevi could have made you feel that her ‘invisible’ lover was caressing her,” said Saroj in an interview.

These were followed by Chandni, ChaalBaaz, Lamhe and Judaai, between 1989 -1997. Saroj’s other hit dances of the ’90s include Urmila Matondkar’s in Rangeela, Raveena Tandon’s in Mohra, Juhi Chawla’s in Darr and Kajol’s in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

Madhuri Dixit raced ahead in the numbers game with Saroj Khan’s Ek do teen for Tezaab (1988). The peppy pub number lead Filmfare to introduce the Best Choreography category with Saroj Khan being its first recipient in 1989. Tamma tamma loge (Thanedaar), Humko aaj kal hai (Sailaab), Dhak dhak karne laga(Beta), Chane ke khet mein (Anjaam)… between 1990- 1994… celebrated Masterji’s chemistry with her muse. 

A classic piece is Madhuri Dixit’s Maar dala (Devdas), which has the phrase ‘maar dala’ repeated four times in each stanza. Saroj composed it in a way that Madhuri enacted each ‘maar dala’ differently. For the iconic Dola re dola, an ailing Saroj instructed Madhuri and Aishwarya Rai, lying on the studio floor.

“Madhuri is the only one with whom I could experiment. I have given her so many weird dance steps, but she did them with ease,” Saroj once said of Madhuri for whom she last choreographed Tabah ho gaye (Kalank 2019).

Her other work in the millennium includes in films Saathiya, Chameli, Guru, Love Aaj Kal, Delhi- 6, Mission Kashmir and Fiza. She was honoured with the American Choreography Award for Aamir Khan’s Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001). In 2012, Gun guna (Agneepath) and Dil mera muft ka (Agent Vinod) were her remarkable offerings.

With the flooding of young choreographers like Bosco-Caesar, Shiamak Davar, Remo Fernandez, Farah Khan and Vaibhavi Merchant, Saroj hit a professional drought. “I had become so popular that actresses started fighting over me. Now, the time has come when they don’t want me. I have sharp movements in my dance, which actresses nowadays find it hard,” she said in an interview to rediff.com.

Saroj began judging dance shows like Naach Baliye, Boogie Woogie, Chak Dhoom Dhoom and Jhalak Dikhla Ja, among others and grabbed TRPs with her larger-than-life presence. In 2019, the veteran admitted lack of work. “I told him (Salman Khan) that I don’t have any work, and that I am teaching Indian classical dance to young actresses (Ananya Panday, Sara Ali Khan, Saiee Manjrekar) … He said, ‘Now, you will work with me’!” she told MidDay.

PERSONAL TRAVAILS

Saroj’s personal life was stormy. So charmed was she by her Masterji Sohanlal’s art, that she ‘fell in love with his work and him’. “I was so much in love with my Guruji. If I saw another dancer with him, I would burn with jealousy,” she said (Nidhi Tulli’s documentary The Saroj Khan Story).

“I was barely 13, a schoolgirl, when I married Master Sohanlal... He just put a black thread around my neck one day… He didn’t tell me that he was already married with four kids. I learned about his first wife only when I gave birth to my son Raju (Hamid) Khan, in 1963,” she added.

In 1965, she gave birth to a daughter, who died before she turned one. Reportedly, Saroj buried her eight-month-old daughter and attended the shooting of Dum maro dum (Hare Rama Hare Krishna).

The demise of her baby broke her from within. Reportedly, it was at this point she converted to Islam. “I converted to Islam on my own wish... I got inspired by the religion…” she reportedly said in a TV interview.

Around the same time, Sohanlal and Saroj parted ways as he refused to give his name to their children. Towards the end of 1969, he approached her again to be his assistant. “When I refused, he lodged a complaint against me with the Cine Dancer’s Association. I started working with him again. Around that time, he suffered a heart attack. I went to see him. There was that one night when I was with him. I conceived my daughter, Kuku (Hina Khan),” she said (www.indiaforums.com).

Later, she met a Pathan businessman, the late Sardar Roshan Khan. “He was married with kids but he fell deeply in love with me. He was willing to accept my children and give them his name... I married him in 1975… He gave me a lot of love. His first wife and I live like sisters... You accept a lot when you love a man,” she reportedly said (bollywoodshadis.com).

The couple had a daughter, Sukaina Khan, who reportedly runs a dance institute in Dubai.

In 1977, Saroj went to Dubai for three years to settle her brother and sisters and Roshan Khan’s first wife’s son. She returned in 1980 and began her second innings.

A huge personal setback was the loss of her 42-year-old daughter Kuku (Hina Khan) to liver failure in 2011. Losing a child once again, hurt Saroj, who was already dealing with professional and health challenges. Complaining of breathlessness, she was admitted to Guru Nanak Hospital in Bandra on 17 June 2020. She died of cardiac arrest on 3 July 2020 at 71.

“I’m devastated by the loss of my friend and guru, Saroj Khan. Will always be grateful for… helping me reach my full potential in dance…,” Madhuri wrote on Twitter. While Kareena Kapoor Khan wrote, “Masterji always told me... perrr nahin chala saktiii toh kam se kam face toh chalaaaaa! That’s what she taught me... to… smile through the eyes.

Saroj Khan must be smiling on reading this!

National Awards

  • Dola re dola (Devdas 2002)

  • Sringaram (2006)

  • Yeh ishq haaye (Jab We Met 2008)

Hat-trick of Filmfare Awards (among a total of eight)

  • Ek do teen (Tezaab 1989)

  • Na jaane kahan se (ChaalBaaz 1990)

  • Humko aaj kal hai (Sailaab 1991)

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