Veteran Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan, who worked in Bollywood for more than four decades and choreographed over 2000 movie songs in her career, was an icon in the film industry that relishes its song and dance sequences. Khan rose to fame in the '80s with her collaboration with Sridevi in Main Naagin Tu Sapera song in Nagina and Hawaa Hawaai in Mr India.
Khan played a significant role in careers of actresses such as Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Kajol and Kareena Kapoor Khan, to name a few, by choreographing in their movies.
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Most notably, Khan worked on tapping into the female sensuality on screen without sexualising them for the audiences, which has seen a reversal in the last decade in Hindi films and music videos. In Sridevi's track Main Naagin Tu Sapera, one can see the beginning of a trend that stayed with Masterji until her last choreographed Bollywood song Tabah Ho Gaye in Kalank (2019). A look at her intricately choreographed dance sequences and one can see that the camera operates from a distance, always, focusing on the frame of the performing artist and not just closeups of their various body parts like pelvis, chest and legs, especially females. The camera never got too close to the heroines and in turn the viewers saw and enjoyed from a distance, like an on-stage performance.
A still of Sridevi from Nagina song Main Naagin Tu Sapera
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When Sridevi performed in Mr India Song Kaate Nahi Kat Te Ye Din Ye Raat, which explored women desires on screen through song and dance, Khan made sure that lust did not pave way for vulgarity or sleaze. Sridevi's sensuous facial expressions in the song had a lot to do with the narrative and love story between her and Anil Kapoor's character moving forward in the film.
Sridevi in Kaate Nahi Kat Te song from Mr India
Later on in her movie career, Khan repeated the same trend with actresses Madhuri Dixit, Kajol and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, whose songs in Devdas, Baazigar and Taal became hugely popular for the elaborate choreography and grandeur. Maar Dala and Dola Re Dola from Devdas became massive hits and to this day remain unmatched in terms of execution and performance.
Most notably in Devdas, Madhuri played the role of a courtesan but that never translated into her getting sexualised in any way. Rather, Madhuri's expressions in Maar Dala remain the takeaways and not the fact that she is performing surrounded by a group of lust-filled men. In Khan's songs, heroines asserted their agency, often more than male actors.
In Madhuri's Dhak Dhak from Beta, she becomes the object of desire by her own choice. Anil's character in the track is smitten by Madhuri but instead of the actress throwing her around on him, the passionate romance unfolds in a graceful manner. Even intimacy is observed, but we never get dragged into it because of the way it is designed to lure and attract and even though the song takes place in an enclosed and private space, we are never invited in as voyeurs.
In retrospect, one can observe that Khan was not just a master of cinematic song and dance but a visual artiste as well. From hero-heroine tracks to working with artistes and hundreds of background dancers, the songs she choreographed in a way reflected her own journey-- a strong independent woman, who never gave her agency away and was a fierce and relentless woman in a male-dominated industry.
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