Saturday, July 4, 2020

In memoriam: Saroj Khan

Saroj Khan in Nartakee (1963)

On July 3 Saroj Khan passed away. If you have watched Indian films from any of the past four decades you have probably seen her work as a choreographer; she also worked as a child actor in the 1950s, a background dancer in the 1950s and 60s, and an assistant choreographer in the 1960s and 70s.

Khan's parents fled Karachi during the Partition in 1947 and came to Mumbai (then Bombay). Her birthdate is given in Shalini Venugopal Bhagat's New York Times obituary as Nov. 22, 1948, although that date doesn't seem as though it fully accords with her appearance as a background dancer in songs such as "Aaiye Meharbaan" from Howrah Bridge (1958), when, if her birthdate is accurate, she would have been 9:

Saroj in "Aaiye Meharbaan" from Howrah Bridge (1958).

If there is any inaccuracy in her birthdate, it may be due not to the usual (and completely justified) concerns about age discrimination in the film industry, but rather to the fraught politics of Partition and the need to ensure that there was no question about her place of birth.

Her father, a well-to-do businessman in Karachi, had to abandon his wealth when he fled to Bombay. As a young girl of three or four, Saroj displayed a keen aptitude for dance, and her parents were advised to seek work for her in the city's film studios. Here she dances as Radha in "Bansuriya Kaahe Bajai" from Aagosh (Embrace, 1953):

As she grew older Saroj continued to perform as a dancer in films such as Taj Mahal (1963), Teesri Manzil (Third Floor, 1966) and Do Raaste (Two Ways, 1969), but she also served as assistant choreographer to the Kathak masters B. Sohanlal and his brother B. Hiranlal beginning with Kalpana (Imagination, 1960) and continuing with films such as Nartakee (Dancer, 1963) and Mera Saaya (My Shadow, 1966), teaching dances to the great Vijayanthimala among many other actresses.

According to Shalini Venugopal Bhagat's obituary, Sohanlal began an intimate relationship with Saroj when she was 13 and he was in his early forties; she considered it a marriage, although he was already married and she was below the minimum legal age of marriage. Whatever Saroj's feelings may have been—in a 2018 interview commenting on the casting couch she said "It depends on the girl, and what she wants to do. . .Why would you sell yourself if you have the talent?"—the difference in their ages and Sohanlal's position as a professional mentor starkly raise the issue of meaningful consent.

Saroj named as B. Sohanlal's assistant in the opening credits of Nartakee.

In 1974 Saroj became a full choreographer in her own right with films such as Geeta Mere Naam (My name is Geeta) and Dost (Friend). She not only created movement, but instructed her dancers in their gestures and facial expressions, an integral aspect of what her dances communicated. She achieved wide recognition beginning in the 1980s when she choreographed films starring the expressive Sridevi, including Mr. India (1987), ChaalBaaz (Trickster, 1989), Chandni (Beloved, 1989), and Lamhe (Moments, 1991). From Lamhe, Sridevi and the Rajasthani singer Ila Arun in "Morni Bagama":

Some of Khan's most memorable choreography was set on Madhuri Dixit. The annual Filmfare Best Choreography Award was instituted in 1989 to honor Khan's work on "Ek Do Teen" from Tezaab (Acid, 1988), the film that made Dixit a star:

Khan received the first three, and five of the first six, Best Choreography Awards to be bestowed, and won a total of eight times, the most of any choreographer. Five of her awards were for numbers featuring Dixit, including "Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intejaar" from Sailaab (Flood, 1990), "Dhak Dhak Karne Laga" from Beta (Son, 1992), and "Choli Ke Peeche" from Khal Nayak (Anti-Hero, 1993).

Beginning in the late 1990s and she worked extensively with another great dancer, Aishwarya Rai (now Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), in films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs to Another, 1999), Taal (Rhythm, 1999), Devdas (2002), Kuch Naa Kaho (Don't Say Anything, 2002), and Guru (2007). From Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the astonishing "Nimbooda," which won the first of Khan's three Best Choreography Awards for dances featuring Rai:

Many North Americans' introduction to Bollywood was Ashutosh Gowariker's film Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001), which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Khan choreographed the dance "Radha Kaise Na Jale," featuring Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan:

I'll end this post with "Dola Re Dola" from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's version of Devdas, which featured Madhuri Dixit as the courtesan Chandramukhi and Aishwarya Rai as Devdas' childhood sweetheart Parvati, and which of course was another winner of the Best Choreography Award:

Saroj Khan went on to choreograph for many other films, including Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (My Country, 2004), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007), Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth, 2007), Love Aaj Kal (Love Nowadays, 2009), and Agneepath (Path of Fire, 2012). In 2012 she was the subject of a documentary directed by Nidhi Tuli, The Saroj Khan Story, which was a key source for this post. Khan's death is a major loss for Indian cinema and for lovers of dance across the world. Our thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues.

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