In an industry where the hero’s name invariably preceded that of the heroine’s, and often decided the box-office fate of a film, Saroj Khan knew she was in for a battle of attrition. No female dance choreographer had been allowed to occupy centre stage in Hindi cinema until then.
Saroj Khan came well prepared for the battle. Having honed her skills under B. Sohanlal, done her bit as a child artist, and been a group dancer in Howrah Bridge in 1958, she signed her first film as an independent choreographer only in 1974 with Geetaa Mera Naam , starring Sadhna , Sunil Dutt and Feroz Khan.
However, she had to wait until the 1980s to come into her own with films such as Mr India , Nagina , Tezaab and Sailaab . If Sridevi waltzed to the top with “Hawa hawai” and “Kaate nahin kat te”, both choreographed by Saroj Khan, in Mr India (1987), she soon had competition from Madhuri Dixit who did not put a foot wrong in the high-octane number “Ek, do, teen” in Tezaab (1988).
Life turned full circle. In a male-dominated industry, Saroj Khan came to be called “Masterji”, a term, like Ustad and Pandit, otherwise reserved for men. Then came films such as Beta , Khalnayak , Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge , Mohra , Taal and Thanedaar, followed in later years by Jab We Met , Guru and Delhi 6 , and culminating in Kalank .
Saroj Khan shaped the careers of several leading ladies in Hindi cinema from the 1980s onwards but was not dependent on them, as she proved with the pulsating number “Dola re Dola” in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002), in which she brought Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai together.
There was more to Saroj Khan than commercial Hindi films. She judged talent shows on television, and directed theatre. Importantly, when Sharada Ramanathan made Sringaram–Dance of Love (2007), a film based on Bharatanatyam and with a devadasi as protagonist, set to music by the classical doyen Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, it was Saroj Khan she chose as the choreographer. The film won the National Film Award for Best Choreography. In a career of over four decades, Saroj Khan choreographed as many as 2,000 songs and won three National awards.
Such an illustrious career could not be without a touch of controversy. In 2018, she seemed to defend the casting couch, but later apologised for her statement. Likewise, in an interview to The Hindu in 2010, she was candid about the actor Sridevi’s lack of rhythm: “I still remember the shooting of ‘Maine Rab Se Tujhe Maang Liya’. There were 13 retakes. ... We always needed four boys around her to keep her on the beat.”
That was Saroj Khan, the one who slogged long hours and shed sweat to create groundbreaking dance numbers. A woman with a mind of her own, fearless enough to express her thoughts whose exhilarating journey was brought to an abrupt end with her death by cardiac arrest on July 3.