Film choreographer Saroj Khan died of cardiac arrest in the early hours of Friday in Mumbai. She had been admitted to the Guru Nanak Hospital in Bandra after she complained that she had trouble breathing.
One of Hindi cinema’s most influential choreographers, the 71-year-old Khan revolutionised Hindi film dance in the 1980s, working closely with Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. Her work fetched her eight Filmfare Awards, the largest number anyone has won for choreography so far, and three National Film Awards for Dola Re Dola (Devdas, 2002), the songs of the 2006 Tamil film Sringaram, and Yeh Ishq Haaye (Jab We Met, 2008).
Mentored by Hindi film choreographer B Sohanlal, Khan brought a mix of boldness and sensuality to her creations, drawing inspiration from folk and classical dance forms for a modern Bollywood audience. As the gyrating vamps disappeared in the 1970s and Hindi film heroines began expressing themselves more freely on the dance floor, Khan’s techniques helped create stars out of Sridevi, Dixit, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
Until Khan and her contemporaries broadened the scope of dance for Hindi film in the 1980s, the choreographer was not accorded much importance. In fact, the Filmfare Award for Best Choreography was instituted in 1989 and she won the first one for her work on Ek Do Teen in Tezaab.
Born in Mumbai’s Mahim area on November 22, 1948, Khan joined the movies as a child actor and soon became a background dancer. One of her first appearances as a dancer was in Aagosh (1953), in which she was Radha to Baby Naaz’s Krishna.
A teenage Khan danced to several classic songs, including Aaiye Meherbaan in Shakti Samanta’s Howrah Bridge (1958).
During this period, she became a regular dancer and dance assistant for B Sohanlal, whom she later married. After working with him for nearly a decade, Khan became an independent choreographer in 1974 with Geetaa Mera Naam.
Khan’s earliest successes came with Sridevi, with the songs Main Tera Dushman (Nagina, 1986), Hawa Hawai and I Love You (Mr India, 1987), and Na Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai (Chaalbaaz, 1989). Her range included boisterous songs, slow and seductive numbers rooted in Indian dance forms, and all-weather Hindi film standards like those in Chandni (1989).
With Sridevi rarely doing films in the 1990s, Khan went on to do some of the most important work of her career with Madhuri Dixit. Under the guise of the sexually charged Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai (Khalnayak, 1994), her dance moves expertly told the story of an undercover police agent hiding her identity in the villain’s lair.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan also danced to Khan’s choreography for some of her most successful songs. These include Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Taal, and Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007).
Her masterstrokes included Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit dancing together to her choreography in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002).
Another remarkable song in the film was the kathak-based Maar Dala, focused on Dixit. In Nidhi Tuli’s 2012 documentary The Saroj Khan Story, Bhansali recalled how dancers would find it difficult to register the nuances of Khan’s choreography, since she would devise a new expression for each single “maar dala” in the chorus, even breaking the phrase and adding small touches to each syllable.
Other standout dances were for the songs Tu Mere Saamne (Darr, 1993), Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen (Baazigar, 1993), Radha Kaise Na Jale (Lagaan, 2001), Khaike Paan Banaras Waala (Don, 2006), and Gun Gun Guna (Agneepath, 2012).
Khan even gave actors not particularly known for their footwork some of their best terpsichorean moments on screen, such as Tirchi Topiwale (Tridev, 1989), featuring Naseeruddin Shah, and My Name Is Lakhan (Ram Lakhan, 1989) with Anil Kapoor.
Her only film featuring purely classical dance forms was Sharada Ramanathan’s 2007 film Srinagram, starring Aditi Rao Hydari as a Bharathanatyam dancer.
Ramanathan recalled how Khan offered 16 distinct expressions for a single line in a song that revolved around seduction: “Anticipation, anxiety, breathlessness, tension, excitement, worry, all of that. We actually counted.”
Since the mid-2000s, and through the following decade, Khan divided her time between appearing in competitive dance shows on television and choreographing films.
The hits dried up as filmmakers moved to hip-hop and producers began to employ several choreographers on a project as per their expertise. Besides, Hindi films began to witness the slow death of the dance sequence. Khan’s last project was Abhishek Varman’s Kalank (2019).