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Friday, October 23, 2020

Saroj Khan: The choreographer who broke the glass ceiling

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In her over four-decade-long career, Saroj Khan not only broke the glass ceiling in a department dominated by men in Hindi cinema but also propelled generations of female actors into the spotlight, through her catchy dance moves. Actors Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi are the two best examples. Through songs like ‘Hawa Hawaai’ and ‘Ek Do Teen’, Dixit and Sridevi found unprecedented fame, thanks to Khan’s evocative choreography, that was at once traditional and modern, folk and contemporary.

Khan, 71, died on Friday morning due to a cardiac arrest in Bandra’s Guru Nanak Hospital. She was admitted to the hospital last Saturday after she complained of breathing issues. The mandatory COVID-19 test done at the hospital showed a negative result. Her funeral was held on Friday at a crematorium in Malad.

Born in 1948 to parents who migrated from Pakistan during the Partition, Khan started her career as a child artiste at the age of three, and later became a ‘background’ dancer, shadowing the moves of lead actors. She worked her way up, and became the first woman chief choreographer in Hindi cinema, delivering some of the biggest hits of the 80s and 90s like ‘Mere Hathon Main’ and ‘Choli Ke Peeche’ and ‘Dhak Dhak Karne Laga’. Khan and Dixit collaborated on several songs, including ‘Dola Re Dola’, for which she won a National Award for Best Choreography. “I’m devastated,” wrote Dixit on Instagram. “Sarojji was part of my journey since the beginning. She taught me a lot, not just about dance but so much more.”

Khan choreographed some of the most well-known actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hema Malini, Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai, and was fondly known as ‘masterji’. She won three National Awards for Best Choreography, including for songs like ‘Yeh Ishq Hai’ in Jab We Met. The song was shot in Manali, using local Himachali women as ‘background’ dancers. “What I remember most is that when the entire shooting of ‘Yeh Ishq Hai‘ got over, she danced solo for us, and that’s a memory I’m going to have of her: wearing Hawai chappal and doing the dance better than anybody could have imagined doing,” said Imtiaz Ali, the director of Jab We Met. “She brought a certain art to the style of dancing in cinema, which was both contemporary and high-class dance.”

The veteran choreographer was widely known for elevating the meaning of the lyrics through her dance. She not only highlighted the emotions of the song but also contributed to the characterisation of the protagonists. “I was a newcomer director and she was a respected choreographer. She had a sense of kindness. I could tell her everything about the narrative and there was nothing she objected to, and she took the course of the narrative into the song. She knew she had to give something special in cinema,” said Ali.

In the last leg of her career, Khan judged various dance reality shows, consolidating her title as ‘masterji’. She last choreographed ‘Tabaah Hogaye’ in Kalank (2019), starring Dixit, an actor synonymous with Khan’s nimble moves and evocative expressions.

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