Many years ago, during the Ganpati festival, the Lewis family stepped out for dinner. A procession was on its way to immerse a Ganesh idol, swaying to the festival favourite Deva O Deva from the 1981 movie Hum Se Badhkar Kaun. The Lewis patriarch joined the revellers, who didn’t realise that the man dancing in their midst was the one who had choreographed the song’s hopping steps in the first place.

Peter Lewis Devraj, professionally known as PL Raj, was responsible for making numerous movie stars dance to his commands. Some of Hindi cinema’s most popular songs, which are till date blasted at every Ganpati or Janmashthami celebration, retro-themed party and office offsite, have indelible contributions by Raj.

His credits include Teesri Manzil, Sholay, Don, Intaqam, Sharmeelee, An Evening in Paris, Gumnaam, Sargam, The Great Gambler, Kaalia and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. He might not be as easily recognisable as the directors and actors with whom he collaborated for close to four decades. He isn’t a household name like, say, Helen, whom he directed in some of her best-known songs, or Amitabh Bachchan, whose long legs he put to excellent use. Yet, nostalgia for old Hindi films, lustful whistling for its song-and-dance sequences, and worship of its agile-footed actors indirectly pay homage to PL Raj.

PL Raj.

Raj died on July 9, 2002, from oral cancer. He was 66. He is survived by his wife Devyani, his son, the singer and composer Leslee Lewis, and daughters Eliza and Greta Lewis, who are among the Hindi film industry’s eminent dubbing producer-directors. The Lewis children are the flame-keepers of Raj’s legacy, even though they were hazy about what Dad actually did for a living when they were growing up.

Raj worked in showbiz at a time when it wasn’t neither modish nor the source of soft power it is today. The pride associated with saying, “My family member is in the Hindi film industry” is relatively new.

Eliza Lewis told Scroll, “In school, if anybody asked what does your dad do and we said he is a dance director, they would say, oh he dances? After that, you didn’t mention the subject.”

Greta Lewis added, “If you said he has gone for shooting, they would say, is he shooting birds? This was even though our school [Bombay Scottish] had many children from the film world.”

The surge in Hindi film nostalgia invariably focuses on actors, directors, writers, song-makers, singers and lyricists. Cinematographers, editors, sound recordists, choreographers and production designers, who are equally responsible for a production, are relegated to the lower rungs in this reckoning.

The memories of these technicians are mainly kept alive by their relatives. Raj’s children have written down his back story, which speaks of hardship, perseverance and enterprise. Apart from containing rare details about Raj’s formative years, the family document reveals his understanding of the conventions of popular Hindi cinema, which demanded that movie plots break away to a song every now and then.

Shammi Kapoor, PL Raj and Helen.

Raj arrived in Mumbai in the 1940s, in a city that allows migrants to jettison their birth names and shed old skin for new. He was born Devraj Munnuswamy Naidu on August 10, 1936, in Coimbatore.

As a child, he was “naughty, a rebel and short-tempered”, according to the Lewis biography. Punished by his father for dancing at a wedding procession, Devraj fled home, but was rescued in time. At the age of 10, Devraj left Coimbatore for good, travelling to the city where dreams and illusions were being hatched on the streets and in movie studios.

In Mumbai, Raj “slept on the pavements, polished shoes, sold newspapers, worked in a glass factory and even worked as a ‘tambi’ [waiter] in a hotel to survive”, the Lewises write. Raj later joined the Indian National Theatre, where he learnt Bharatanatyam and dance ballet from Parvathi Kumar. He picked up kathak from Lacchu Maharaj, apart from also learning kathakali, tap dancing and jiving. This eclectic skillset was most useful when Raj began choreographing songs that spanned the musical spectrum from classical to pop.

Raj could also play the flute, tabla, pakhawaj, harmonium and Hawaiian guitar. “He actually wanted to be a music director, but dancing came naturally to him,” Eliza Lewis said.

In the 1950s, Raj entered Hindi cinema as a background dancer under the tutelage of Leela Sharma. “Leela introduced him to the film line, and he worked his way up,” Greta Lewis said.

This was an era when choreographers were described as “dance directors” or “dance masters”. Raj is among the group performers in Shola Jo Bhadke from the musical hit Albela (1951), Miss Coca Cola (1955), Shree 420 (1955) and Howrah Bridge (1958). Later, he began assisting the choreographer Krishna Kumar (the screen name of Anglo-Indian dancer Tony). After Kumar was murdered, reportedly by rivals, Raj became an independent choreographer.

His first professional credit was for Subodh Mukerji’s Love Marriage (1959), starring Dev Anand and Mala Sinha. The cast included Helen, who emerged as the pre-eminent messenger of Raj’s mastery of the medium.

Yeh Mera Dil, Don (1978).

Raj flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, a heady period for shut-up-and-dance film songs. Love stories and crime thrillers were laced with giddy fun, which found expression in songs.

Improved cameras led to greater movement. Colour film stock meant zany costumes and outlandish sets. The dance moves were freer than before, marked by youthful abandonment.

The decades included songs set in nightclubs, in which a dancer – nearly always Helen – dominated the floor. Raj was “a master in all forms of dances, but his cabarets were the best”, the Lewises say in their essay. Helen has a tonne of these, including O Haseena Zulfonwali from Teesri Manzil (1966), famous for surrealist sets as well and Helen’s supple hips.

In Aiyaya Suku Suku from Junglee (1961), following a prologue performed by Helen (with a giant painter’s palette as a backdrop), Shammi Kapoor horses around with dancers dressed like characters from an Orientalist fantasy. In the sultry Aa Jaane Jaan from Intaqam (1969), a man with blackface writhes in a cage as Helen tantalises him with innuendo and fluid footwork.

Aiyaya Suku Suku, Junglee (1961).

For the Lewis kids, Helen is still “Helen aunty”. Godmother to Lesley and Greta Lewis, even attending Greta Lewis’s first Holy Communion, Helen has always acknowledged Raj’s role in her career, the sisters said. When Raj was ailing from cancer, Helen visited him in the hospital.

Apart from the club songs, Raj was also known for classical numbers in such films as Chitralekha, Abhinetri and Sargam, the Lewises point out. For Prince (1969), Raj choreographed Muqabala Humse Na Karo, a dance-off between Vyjayanthimala and Helen. Raj’s skillset extended to mujra, such as in Khilona (1970) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978).

PL Raj on a film set.

Lewis’s ear for music meant that he could tackle a variety of songs. “He would do his homework, which would be hearing the songs over and over again, get his assistant or secretary to write the songs and he would dictate the music portion,” the Lewises write. For instance, Raj would allot four beats to the violin and two beats each to the guitar. “This along with the lyrics would be broken down into shots.”

A unique professional requirement of the film choreographer is knowing how to create steps that are cut to a song’s beats. Continuity has to be maintained over discrete portions that are later stitched together in the edit.

Although Raj was not trained in cinematography, he understood the camera well enough, the Lewises write: “The use of Prism lens, where you see the same figure in multiples like a kaleidoscope, is something he did not start, but something he used in songs, and each figure in the prism was focused and not blurred.”

Hungama Ho Gaya from Anhonee (1973), which was remixed for Queen (2014), features Bindu in one of her most uninhibited dances. Raj deployed the camera’s zoom function, the Lewises point out: “Besides the basic zoom in and out, there is a music portion in the song, where the camera focuses on the musicians, especially the cello (bass guitar). The camera zooms in and out manually, on the exact beats of the instrument played.”

In Dafliwaley Dafli Baja from Sargam (1979), the camera rolls 360 degrees on the beat, for which Raj manually handled the camera, according to the Lewises.

Hungama Ho Gaya from Anhonee (1973).

Much before Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990) and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), Raj got Mehmood and Radha Saluja to lip-sync in slow motion for Jogi O Jogi in Laakhon Mein Ek (1971). But there were times when the choreography followed the song’s rhythm, allowing viewers to appreciate the footwork.

Among Amitabh Bachchan’s best-loved songs is Jahan Teri Yeh Nazar Hai from Kaalia (1980). The song has an opening shot that runs a little over a minute. Bachchan’s Kaalia invites party-goers at a nightclub to dance with him, annoys the villain Shahani Seth, and flirts with his diamond necklace-wearing mark, all without missing a step.

Bachchan was among the stars who bore the brunt of Raj’s disciplinarian ways, the Lewises say. “It was said that the dancers would normally fool around during rehearsals on other dance directors’ sets, but there would be in pin drop silence during Raj’s rehearsals,” they have written.

“Initially, Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t a great dancer, and dad probably made him more nervous,” Eliza Lewis said. A solution was found with some help from the actor-director Bhagwan’s signature shuffle and simple hand movements in Albela – Raj’s first film as a background dancer.

“Since dad danced in Albela, he knew the steps,” Eliza Lewis adde. “Also Bachchan was so tall, so what do you do with his hands?” Raj’s collaboration with Bachchan perhaps peaked with Don, in which Kalyanji-Anandji’s ultra-cool soundtrack meshes with Bachchan’s nonchalance and Raj’s exuberant choreography.

PL Raj with Amitabh Bachchan.

While Raj didn’t suffer shirkers, he would tweak the steps if actors put in the effort, the Lewis sisters said. In a radio programme after the release of Sholay (1975), which includes the belly dance-themed Mehbooba Mehbooba featuring Jalal Agha and Helen, Agha spoke of complicated steps and scraped knees on account of constantly moving around on them.

Raj’s stern manner carried over into his household. “He was strict at home too – he had a very strict father, and his gurus were equally strict,” Eliza Lewis recalled. Although the family didn’t attend very many film shoots, the Lewis sisters do recall sitting in on the edits he did to his songs.

None of the siblings danced professionally. “But as kids, we did dance – at birthday parties, we were the item numbers,” Eliza Lewis said. “We had a natural rhythm, and we did our own choreography.”

From having to downplay their father’s profession, they now proudly own his achievements. “Whenever iconic songs come on the radio, we are like, this is daddy’s song, that is daddy’s song,” Greta Lewis said.

(L-R): Greta, Eliza and Leslee Lewis.