It has been one year since ace choreographer Saroj Khan bid adieu to the world. Even though Bollywood song and dance is no longer what it used to be when Khan, fondly called Masterji, was moulding the likes of Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai to add newer dimensions to their performance on screen, her unrivalled contribution to the film industry has inspired generations and continues to do so.
On her first death anniversary, we catch up with dancing duo Jaaved and Naved Jaaferi whose association with Khan dates back to the ’80s. From Jaaved’s first hit song Bol Baby Bol in Meri Jung (1985) to collaborating with them on dance reality show Boogie Woogie, they recall fond memories of her and teachings that have stuck.
“I remember my first film with her, 7 Saal Baad, which was shot in ’84 but released after Meri Jung. Saroj ji had heard of me as I was a well known dancer in Mumbai. She said, ‘Abhi tu dikha mere ko tu kya karta hai!’ (Show me your moves). I did what I could and said this is the kind of stuff we could do. We were shooting in Mehboob studios and she called all 30-40 of her dancers and said, ‘Watch this guy perform.’ For me it was a big thing for her to call her dancers and say look at this guy doing things that are new and not there in the Hindi film industry. With me, she used to give me the freedom to do what I wanted to in the song. She never had the ego, ‘Oh I am the choreographer.’ To make the song better, she was very open," Jaaved recalls.
Later, Khan also choreographed his superhit tracks Bol Baby Bol and Jawani Zindabad, both of which showcased his style — breakdance mixed with freestyle — more than hers.
“In the song in Jawani Zindabad, she let me get involved. I gave her ideas in choreography and it was very lovely to see that she kept all of that. Despite having huge success and vision in her work, she was accommodative," Jaaved says.
Naved adds, “Masterji always worked with the younger generation. She never imposed her authority as a choreographer. On the other hand, she was very cooperative and used to consult and work in collaboration with the others. She never forced choreography on the actors. Whenever necessary, she used to always change the dance steps according to the actor’s comfort."
About Khan’s working style on set, Jaaved says, “If a director had a musical leaning, Saroj ji would collaborate with them. She was a flexible person that way and used to take inputs all the time."
Naved adds, “Directors used to sit quietly on the set when Masterji used to do the songs because she knew what she was doing. When there was a story going on in the song, then of course she collaborated with the director. She was strict but a very lively person. She was jovial and always in a fun mood while working."
Khan was also a guest and later a full time judge on Jaaved and Naved’s hit reality show Boogie Woogie. She was a mentor to many artists with whom she worked on different projects through her six decade long career. Both Jaaved and Naved say she used to treat all the reality show contestants as her students.
Jaaved remembers, “She would be honest in her feedback. She was like a teacher. She was respectful towards the art but if anything ticked her off, she would not think twice before giving her piece of mind. She was not diplomatic."
Naved recalls how she would involve herself in Boogie Woogie beyond the judging duties. “She added a lot of value to the show. We had introduced opening dance acts and she always got involved in it and used to tell us how it could be done better. We had a lot of fun as a team. With the contestants, she was strict sometimes but then she always used to guide them. No one could pressurise her into giving a certain verdict on the performance. She said what was in her heart. She was very genuine."
What could today’s generation of dancers and choreographers learn from her? Jaaved says, “Saroj ji came from a background where they were trained in a form of classical dance like Kathak or Bharatnatyam. At that time Western dance was basic. Due to exposure and the internet today, everybody can do what everybody else can do. But film choreography is never only about the steps. It comes from understanding the song and how to picturise it. Steps is one part of the choreography. There are also expressions, cinematography and editing. That is where she excelled. If you look at how Saroj ji worked with Madhuri Dixit or Sridevi, it was expressions with movement, how the camera moved and it was later edited. There was much more work in those days that went into becoming a choreographer. They were dancers first, then assistant choreographers and much later, choreographers. It was a gradual process, which required perseverance, a lot of learning and eventually you saw growth. It also taught you how to deal with failure. There was certainly wisdom from where they came."
Naaved adds, “Her expressions were otherworldly. In dance, ‘nazaron se baatein karna’ is something and that was pure Saroj ji. Translation of the song is choreography and she was an expert in that. Also, she was ahead of her times in realising that the traditional and the contemporary have to be together in order to be truly successful."
On a parting note, Jaaved says Masterji’s contribution to the film industry has been immense and unlike any in her field of work. “Her choreography added life to the songs. Humko Aajkal Hain Intezaar from Sailaab is one of my favourites. There is sensuality in it and a certain stillness. She always worked with the performer, focused on the movement and just let them dance on screen. On that level her contribution is unparalleled."