RIP Saroj Khan: The Tough Dance Mistress of the Industry

Thank you Alisa for alerting me to this news. For once a death occurs on the western news cycle, so I get to hear about it mid-evening instead of waking up to it first thing.

Saroj was part of the Hindi film industry since the beginning. Which is a sign of both how very young Saroj started her career, and how very young the industry is as an industry. In her 69 years of working in Hindi film, Saroj saw it go from the fringes of the world immediately post-Independence to the center of society.

Like most early workers in Hindi film, Saroj was a refugee who started film work in desperation. Her family fled Partition and landed in Bombay, where Saroj started picking up parts as a child artist at age 3. By puberty, she was working as a background dancer. Early own she was taken in and mentored by B. Sohanlal, the top choreographer of the day. B. Sohanlal was a classically trained Kathak dancer. He learned in temples and classrooms from respected Gurus. He taught Saroj in noisy studio lots with lights and tinsel and cameras. But he was still a Guru, Saroj learned classical Kathak from childhood from a Master teacher. It doesn’t matter what the context was.

20 Bollywood Stars Who Started Career as Junior Artists - Page 2 ...
Saroj, second dancer in this shot

At some point , Saroj went from student to romantic partner and professional partner. B. Sohanlal was already married, but he “married” Saroj as a second wife and had 3 children with her. I don’t particularly like him for taking Saroj as a second wife like that, but then we don’t know the context, not really, they are the only ones who know that. But it is interesting to keep in mind that Saroj was quoted in 2018 in regards to the “casting couch” as saying that the industry doesn’t “rape and abandon people” it gives them careers. Was she talking about her own experience? About the much older B. Sohanlal who mentored teenage Saroj in return for a sexual relationship and gave her a career?

At 26, after going from back-up dancer to “special” dancer trained under B. Sohanlal to B. Sohanlal’s wife and assistant choreographer, she got her first independent choreography job with Geeta Mere Name in 1974. She worked along in the background for over a decade, honing her skills, doing the unnoticed dances, until she found her twin muses Sridevi and Madhuri in the 1980s.

There is something truly magical about what Saroj and Sridevi and Madhuri achieved in the 80s and 90s. These were three incredibly hardworking women. That old saying about “Ginger did everything Fred did but backwards and in heels”? It’s not true of course, because Fred choreographed everything and did all the star turns and was the dance genius, while Ginger was his able partner. But with Saroj and Sridevi and Madhuri, it really was true. Saroj designed elaborate complex dance numbers for them and drilled them to perfection. And on top of that, they were in heels, headdresses, breath reducingly tight dresses, and giving perfect hair and face and personality along with perfect moves. These 3 women showed just what women can do, when they have a chance. Suddenly the typical choreographer pictured for Hindi film became a woman instead of a man. And suddenly the big spectacular star people wanted to see was a woman instead of a man too.

And then as always happened, Saroj got a bit shoved aside by her younger sisters in the industry. First Farah Khan, then Vaibhavi Merchant, and now Geeta Kapoor. But Saroj kept her place, just had to share the stage with folks who were finding their place. If you wanted a song with a lot of dancers, with complicated steps, with the focus on the dance above the camera work and tricks and even characters acting out songs, then you wanted Saroj.

30 thoughts on “RIP Saroj Khan: The Tough Dance Mistress of the Industry

  1. You’re getting to be quite a pro at writing these meaningful obituaries, Margaret. I don’t know that that’s a skill that you necessarily wanted, but it’s one that’s getting a more than ample try out these past few months. Now whenever I see some sad news, I immediately wonder what you’ll say in reaction. You have not let me down yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very nice to hear. As you know, I always like saying something nice about people, and obituaries are where you get to say the nicest things without anyone judging you.

      On Thu, Jul 2, 2020 at 10:11 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Well, that’s a nice philosophy to have in these days, when most of the “mainstream media” think that a person’s death is the signal to dig up every allegation, accusation, and unsubstantiated rumor, and vent their spleen in a final kick to the downed person.

        But it’s about more than saying nice things. It’s that you manage to summarize a person’s whole career, and a little bit of their live (we can’t really know the actual life of these people whom we only know in their public personas), lauding the positives, and acknowledging the negatives but not dwelling on them. and find meaning in their existence. That’s what I appreciate. And the fact that you’ve had to turn these out at short notice, and having to write the next one before fully processing the previous one, is what is impressive. Grace under pressure would be one way to put it. Personally by this time I have become numbed to these death announcements, as there have been too many to process. So your write-ups help to humanize the event, and let me feel a little, without being overwhelmed.

        I hope you won’t need to write another one for a long time.

        Liked by 1 person


  2. One of my favorite qawwali numbers and the first piece she ever did as a choreographer. Can’t believe she was only 14 when she worked on this! Also apparently in the early days she struggled to find work because all the choreographers were men back then. Not to mention the Filmfare Award for Best Choreography was created all because of Ek Do Teen. Clearly a trailblazer.

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    • I think she might have been the first choreographer to have been known outside of the industry. There were certainly successful respected choreographers within the industry before then, but I’m not sure if the audience knew their faces the way everyone knew Saroj Khan. And now Ganesh Acharya and Farah Khan and so many others.

      On Thu, Jul 2, 2020 at 10:27 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. You didn’t include Dola Re Dola! Even if you hate the film that’s one of her most famous numbers.

    Too bad about the blackface in Hawa Hawaii, it ruins one of Sridevi’s best ever performances. I have to stop the video before the blackface appears because I can’t take it. But she’s so funny and gorgeous and glamorous in it all at the same time.

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      • I can see that, Govinda does all those little hand gestures and eye movements which are so Kathak-y.

        On Fri, Jul 3, 2020 at 1:05 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • I guess this is a reply to my other comment? Hilariously when he tries to do proper kathak bits with jumping and stomping it’s with mixed success. Not forceful enough and too dainty.

          He did a very nice video about her, giving her the credit for his success! Very sweet.

          She can’t be that strict if he wasn’t scared of her, but then I guess he’s weird anyway.

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    • But I hate the film!!!! Agree though, it is a classic Saroj dance, such elaborate dance moves with two actress/trained dancers.

      On Thu, Jul 2, 2020 at 11:26 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Another thing I just noticed is that the background dancers are all very precise and in synch in Saroj’s songs which is very much not the case with other choreographers. I guess that reflects her perfectionism. In Ek Do Teen in particular, it’s an insanely complex number with dozens of dancers on multilevel stages. And everyone is on beat and where they’re supposed to be, it’s a wonder.

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        • Good catch! That would have two effects, right? The subconscious feeling of unity and perfection when you watch, but it also meant she could do far more elaborate arrangements with her lockstep perfect dancers.

          On Fri, Jul 3, 2020 at 12:02 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Saroj ji was one of the few choreographers whose works make even the youngsters wonder “now THAT is a good dance”.Her versatility from classical to modern is unforgettable.
    You are good at writing obituaries.Unfortunately 2020 is giving this grim opportunity too often.

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    • She was definitely the one who could bring the classic Kathak feel, not just move cameras around and play with editing and concepts.

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  5. Govinda LOVED her. He took dance lessons from her for ages, either as a kid or when he started out. She says she’s choreographed him because she would get very angry whenever he was late on set but I can’t figure out where.

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  6. I loved her dance class tv show…she would go through all her popular songs and teach you each move step-by-step…plus she gave general tips about understanding beat/expression..and she also sprinkled in some behind-the-scenes song making drama…

    I also recall so many actor interviews casually stating how scared they were of Saroj Khan…I think Saif was talking about one of his 90s songs…he thought the song would be a breeze to shoot and they would be done in a few hours…but Saroj refused to okay his half-assed attempt…she stopped the shoot told everyone to go for lunch and ordered Saif to stay in the studio and practice on his own till everyone returned…she really was exacting and fearless!

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    • Yes! That is my impression of her. Tough but fair. But really really tough. She didn’t care who you were, she would force you to work until you got the steps right. But at the same time, she calibrated her expectations for the person. She made Madhuri work like CRAZY, and the end result was these amazing complicated impossible dances. But that was because she was bringing Madhuri to the very edge of her abilities and Madhuri was really really good. With Saif, she wanted the very best he could do, but she wasn’t going to expect him to do what Madhuri did.

      Does that make sense? She was the teacher who demanded the very best work from each student, with a full understanding of exactly what the best they were capable was.

      On Fri, Jul 3, 2020 at 8:09 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I admire that so much about her! I remember in an interview she mentioned her experiences choreographing Dil Mera Muft Ka. Kareena Kapoor apparently didn’t show up for rehearsals (which Saroj Khan took very seriously), and they ended up having to shoot for 6 whole days on set to get her to learn the choreography as they were shooting. Saroj Khan wasn’t about to allow half-assed work no matter what.

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        • And yet, when you look at her end products, there is a definite difference in quality depending on who the lead is. I admire that about her, if you showed up for rehearsals, she would work with you, figure out your skill level, and make the dance work for you. A mixture of no compromise, and compromise. She didn’t expect everyone to be a Madhuri, she just expected them to show up for rehearsals and let her figure out what they could do.

          On Sat, Jul 4, 2020 at 4:50 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. I think it’s safe to say every girl (and some boys) growing up in the 90s with Hindi films in the background had tried atleast one of Saroj Khan’s dance steps, consciously or not. I certainly did! Also remember having to do the Dola Re Dola hook step in a game of Truth or Dare.

    Funnily, for the longest time I thought Farah was Saroj’s daughter!

    It’s such a shame choreographers are properly credited on songs. I know the most famous of her songs, but I’m sure there are plenty more that I like but don’t know who did the choreography!

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    • Yes! Saroj had such a long career, there must be literally thousands of songs she did. But we only know about a few of them thanks to the poor way credits are recorded.

      On Fri, Jul 3, 2020 at 11:39 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I was trying to look up what she did pre 1986 and it was impossible to know the full extent of her work! Also I hate how not all of the choreographers are credited along with the songs that did!

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  8. She was fearless and tough with everything. I remember there was in interview of hers’ where she was talking about how she didn’t get much work now because newer actors did not want to work with her due to her toughness. She also called out choreographers like Vaibhavi Merchant and Farah Khan for barely doing the dance themselves (personally, I’ve never seen Farah dance anywhere). She mentioned how one of her assistants worked for Vaibhavi Merchant for a shoot and apparently Merchant played the song, asked the assistants to freestyle the dance and then picked the steps that she liked. It takes guts to publicly call out some bad practices that happens behind the scenes, so honestly more power to her for keeping her integrity to the last minute. She had her style, and she wasn’t going to water down her art to cater to the whims of stars.

    Personally, the quality of dance in Bollywood has been on the decline for quite some time now. We have fewer actors putting strong effort into getting better as dancers, especially in newer generations. As a dancer myself, dance isn’t the Tiger Shroff/Katrina Kaif style acrobatics. Indian dance forms are about expressions and physical story telling, which is often missing when people focus more on doing unusual movements rather than thinking about the rhythm and flow of the song. There’s a reason why Hrithik Roshan stands out more than Tiger Shroff in Jai Jai Shivshankar even though his movements were slower than Tiger’s. To top it off, rapid camera movements during songs is helping distract the viewers from the actual choreography (take Tu Meri for example, Hrithik was great but I would’ve just loved it if the camera calmed down for long enough for me to see the dance steps without a bajillion cuts in the middle). Not all actors are classically trained dancers, which is totally fine, but it’s clear when someone’s best effort isn’t being put in for songs (whether that be the choreographer, actor or anybody else in the process).

    Saroj Khan was truly one of a kind, and there hasn’t been another like her.

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    • What I’m noticing is the lack of steps that anyone can do. It’s less about “I am going to come up with something original and new in a simple rhythmic motion that people can learn and dance to at home” and more about “let’s give them the spectacle of leaps and edits and explosions that you can’t do at home”.

      I’m not surprised to hear that Vaibhavi and Farah work like that. I know Farah is self-taught, and learned by watching dance movies, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vaibhavi learned similarly. I don’t think of them as choreographers in the traditional sense at all, I think of them as people who consider the whole vision of a filmed song, they time out the edits and have a vision for the set and the costumes, and a lot more than the dance steps. But the industry loses something when you don’t have anyone who thinks about the actual dancing any more.

      My parents go to a lot of dance performances, and there are some they went to where they have a special “chair dance” section. It’s for dancers who are 70-80-90, they can’t do the big moves any more, but they can sit in a chair and do the foot and hand and face work. That’s the real dancing, that’s the real skill, it’s not about the athletics. I think Saroj could have done that kind of dance easily even when she started having heart problems and all the rest, she could have sat there and been graceful. And Madhuri, and Hrithik, and even Shahrukh and Aamir (who aren’t natural dancers but worked really hard to learn skills). But I don’t know if Tiger or Kat or Varun, as they are now, could do it. Or Alia, or really most of the young people. Even the ones who are hard workers focused more on strength and agility than the subtle skills.

      On Sat, Jul 4, 2020 at 4:48 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Regarding working with new actors, I learnt that Ananya, Sara and a bunch of others were training under her so clearly she was still held in high regard.

        Kareena in her tribute post quoted Sarojji admonishing her with ‘If you can’t move your feet, atleast move your face’! Love it! Again encapsulates that film dance is as much about expressions as movements.

        Like

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