In 1999, I was making a documentary series on Hindi cinema for Channel 4 TV, UK, and had the privilege of meeting the exceptionally talented Saroj Khan for a filmed interview. She was rehearsing a song/dance number for a film (I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember the title) with her dancers in a very modest-looking dance hall where one wall was covered by a huge mirror. This allowed Saroj Khan to watch the movements of the dancers from various distances and angles. She instructed her assistant, who taught the group dancers the steps she had created. And at the end of the session, she got up and led the dancers. The minute she was on the floor, the atmosphere changed. All the dancers stood back in awe, clapping, as they sensed a kind of electric magic in her dance steps – they came from an inner place. Some things can’t really ever be taught.

When the rehearsals were over, we sat down to talk. The latter part of the filmed interview in Hindi took place in her car on the drive to her home in Lokhandwala in suburban Mumbai. The following is an excerpt from that long interview.

Her passing is an immeasurable loss for Indian film. She brought such originality, dignity and excellence to her work. Her understanding of dance, song words and camera movements were often superior to the film directors she worked with.

Saroj Khan: I don’t ask for the storyline. I compose the dance first and do what I feel like doing. I’ve been so lucky that none of my dances were later changed. They always went with the story. Because we have a bit of imagination too! The words tell us what the story is. I don’t ask my director. I compose the piece, then two days later, I show him the dance. He nearly always says, “We don’t want to change anything.”

The song words tell us how to shape the dance. So I think my work starts from when I first listen to the song. Some choreographers don’t understand the words fully, because the lyrics may not be in their mother tongue – and sometimes, the words have double meanings so a choreographer could compose something wrong. We advise those dance masters to ask the film director the meaning of the words.

Saroj Khan on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002). Photograph by Peter Chappell.

Nasreen Munni Kabir: Do you improvise a lot on set?
SK: I always keep a margin for improvisation. If a dance step is being filmed in close-up – and the framing is obviously tighter, and therefore a hand movement may go out of the frame, that’s when I’ll create another movement. I do that on set.

NMK: You said you can choreograph a dance in half a day.
SK: Yes, in half a day. I can do it if I’m really awake and full of life! When I hear a song, I know if it’s a song that I can compose in an hour. It can happen sometimes.

A most difficult song for me was “I love you, kaate nahin katte” from Mr India. It was a sensuous song and you couldn’t rehearse the movements in a dance hall. I had to choreograph Sridevi’s dance on the spot. So when I went to the set, it took me fifteen minutes to compose the whole dance.

NMK: Why was that song difficult?
SK: Because it was sensuous and had to have sensuous movements. In those days, our censors were very quick with their scissors. They would remove anything you show. If you showed a hip movement, it was out. We had to be careful. But this song wasn’t touched.

NMK: How did you like working with Sridevi on this song?
SK: She had never done anything like it before, but she did it very well. In the scene, the man is not visible and yet he’s touching her. That was a big challenge. She used to rehearse with my assistant for hours and let him touch her and then turn to me and say, “Now you watch me, Masterji, the way he touches me, the way he holds me in his arms… see if my movements are correct.” Then I would make the boy stand behind her and pull her towards him, so she would react with a jerking movement. Only she could have done that song and made you feel her “invisible” lover was caressing her. She’s a beautiful artist.

Kaate Nahin Katte, Mr India (1987).

NMK: Yes! You’ve worked with so many actresses. Did you find any who danced a bit like you?
SK: Yes. Madhuri and Sridevi. Now I’ve got Ash [Aishwarya Rai]. At the moment I’m working on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas – and if I give Madhuri and Ash a small step to do, they ask me to do it and show them. They’re both very cultured, they sit and talk together.

If Sri was there, it would be impossible. She didn’t want me to talk too much to anyone else. She’d call me over saying: “Masterji! Come here.” Then she’d ask, “Don’t you like me?” She was like a child.

NMK: The actresses when dancing seem to mirror you. They become your mirror.
SK: Exactly. Whatever I do, they do. If they don’t, the expressions will not come through.

For example, if they’re supposed to call their lover through expression and not words, how will they do it? “No, Masterji, you tell us how.” So I’ll use my eyes or lips or chin and show them the movement. That’s how I teach them.

NMK: What do you like about Bombay, Saroj-ji?
SK: Bombay is a town which really gives you love, whether the people belong to you or not. Somebody or the other will help you. We often say it’s a dirty city – and then we go to Switzerland for a shoot and despite the clean and neat streets of those countries, exactly five days later, you start missing Bombay. I just love it.

Dola Re Dola Re, Devdas (2002).

Also read:

Saroj Khan (1948-2020): The choreographer extraordinaire who transformed Hindi film dance forever

Watch: Documentary on Saroj Khan follows the choreographer’s life and work in the movies