If you thought background dancer Mili in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela was an only-in-the-movies success story, wait till you hear the Saroj Khan saga. The choreographer entered the Hindi film industry as child artist Nirmala, lost her father at 10, grew up on one meal a day (usually onion fritters and bread) and became a group dancer to support five siblings and her mother. When she was just over 12, Khan’s precocious talent coupled with the ability to grasp moves quickly got her promoted to assistant to reputed choreographer B Sohanlal. They were married a year later (she was 13, he was 43), and he fathered three of her kids. She assisted Sohanlal until 1973, working as a nurse and a telephone operator for periods in between and even briefly moving to Dubai. She returned to Mumbai in the 1980s and became one of the most sought-after choreographers of that decade and the next. If documentary filmmaker Nidhi Tuli’s The Saroj Khan Story is unable to squeeze all this drama into 57 minutes, it’s not for want of trying.
Tuli weaves together interviews with the charismatic but tough-as-nails dancer, archival footage from her background dancing days as well as clips from her iconic songs (“Radha Kaise Na Jale”, “Dola Re Dola”). Tuli, who has previously directed the well-received documentary Ladies Special, decided that Khan was a worthy subject while watching an episode of the dance show Nach Baliye, in which Khan was a judge. After watching a couple danced to “Chadh Gayo Papi Bichhua” (Madhumati), Khan commented that she was a background dancer in the song. Tuli was fascinated. “She has a fantastic story that must be told to people,” Tuli said.
Almost two years in the making, The Saroj Khan Story includes enlightening details about Khan’s years in the chorus line from her contemporary Sheela. Tuli pulls off a coup by getting an interview with the reclusive actress Vyjanthimala (Tuli waited 10 months for an audience), who waxes eloquent about Khan’s ability to notice the smallest “looks and jerks” of Sohanlal’s choreography. Also full of admiration is Madhuri Dixit, whose career owes a great deal to such signature sings as “Hum Ko Aaj Kal Hai”, “Choli Ke Peeche” and “Chane Ke Khet Mein”, all choreographed by Khan. But it’s through the voices of directors like Subhash Ghai and Sanjay Leela Bhansali that viewers truly see her strengths – her rhythmic instincts, her command over sensuous routines, ability to devise a range of moves for one word or line and her perfectionism. One of the documentary’s highlights is a clip of Ghai presenting Khan with the first Filmfare award for choreography in 1989 for “Ek Do Teen” (Tezaab). “Three cheers for this little fat girl who dances better than the many stars,” says Ghai at the presentation.
Apart from covering the familiar hits, Tuli tries to show us a lesser-known side of Khan: her versatility. This come across when she looks at Khan’s work on the Tamil film Sringaram (2007), for which she creates five bharatanatyam routines despite having no training in the classical style. It won Khan the National Award for choreography and was followed by an invitation from Chennai’s respected cultural centre, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha – a rare honour for an artist from the Hindi film industry.
Even as Tuli showcases Khan’s many achievements, she avoids commenting on the fading relevance of Khan’s art today. Gone are the days when a single choreographer would be in charge of a film. Khan’s combination of classical, folk and filmi moves and her emphasis on alluring facial expressions are rarely seen in Hindi movies today. She finds herself competing with a new, younger crop of choreographers who have a diverse movement vocabulary that includes new styles such as hip hop, contemporary dance and salsa. The documentary would have benefited from the voices of these choreographers and their thoughts on their predecessor and, perhaps for some, role model.
Rather, Tuli focuses more on how Khan accumulated recognition on the basis of merit, commitment, determination and hard work. “She wears her genius very lightly,” said Tuli. “Every time she has had a fall, she has risen. She really looks at dance as therapy.” She follows Khan from her house, in her car and to the sets and studio for 18 months and so extensive was the story she emerged with that she shot more than what she had budgeted for. “I kept telling people that during the making of the film I became really fond of her but she was always detached,” Tuli said. “It is telling of the kind of experiences she has had in the film industry that she is not attached to anybody.”
The one regret Tuli said she has is not including Sridevi. “A film about Saroj Khan with the two of them would have been priceless,” said Tuli. “I got really close to getting here but then I think I just pissed Boneyji off with too much texting.”
Our biggest gripe with the documentary is that Tuli doesn’t explore Khan’s family life in detail. There is no mention of Raju Khan, Saroj Khan’s choreographer son from Sohanlal. (Raju Khan refused to be interviewed). Khan’s relationship with her second husband, Sardar Khan, had to be dropped. (He was unwell during the shoot and Saroj Khan’s comments on him didn’t make the final cut). There’s also nothing on how she embraced Islam and changed from Nirmala to Saroj Khan. Nevertheless, Tuli’s film is a good enough excuse to revisit the achievements of the choreographer, whose work will resonate for years to come.
By Suhani Singh on June 08 2012 11.31am
Photos by Courtesy Nidhi Tuli: The Saroj Khan Story