In the past decade, Saroj Khan's work as choreographer of Hindi film songs reduced. Her footprint as a judge and mentor on dance contests and dance reality shows had grown. In fact, the 71 year old 'masterji' led the origin of dance tutorials in India before the advent of multiple channels on YouTube. Khan's Nachle Ve (on NDTV Imagine), a no-fuss show where she broke down her most popular Bollywood dance numbers in the company of able students remains a go-to destination online for training on hit songs.
Khan rose up the ranks to become the most recognised choreographer in Hindi cinema, frequently collaborating with superstars Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. She imbibed dance moves with expressions, facial and eye movements drawn from classical forms like Kathak and Bharat Natyam, and combined these with popular moves from folk-dance forms. Over time, with the advent of hip hop, street, and rock n roll taking over Hindi film songs, Khan's style lost out to more physical forms of choreography.
But for the movie buffs spread across India and the world, her iconic choreography always held appeal. Which is why, her turn as judge and mentor on dance contests on TV and reality shows was hugely popular and consistent. In Nach Baliye, she would be critical about losing fluidity and emotion while perfecting physical movements, even if it meant disappointing the contestants with her remarks. But she would also reward good performances with rich praise and her signature nazar shagun of offering Rs 101 to contestants. Rajeshwari Sachdev and Varun Badola were amongst the lucky few to get this shagun from Khan after a particularly hard day of dancing .
Khan worked as judge and made guest appearances on dance programmes across networks. Her exacting nature never changed. Whether a kids troupe, a budding Hindi film actor or a TV star, she would not dilute her observations about the intricacies and emotions embedded in dance. In fact, this bit also made her unpopular with fellow celebrity judges and some contestants. On a lesser known regional dance program, Dance Sangram (on Mahua), she exchanged harsh words with Shweta Tiwari, a judge and mentor over her criticism of a contestant's ability to express. Khan held her ground that experience is the best teacher, and that a song comes alive on screen riding on emotions and expressions, rather than just technique.
While she could be tough, her focus on getting dance moves right inspired many to aim high in the field of Bollywood dancing. Nachle Ve has trained many young TV stars, including established names like Anita Hassanandani. It also reached out to clusters of fans and students across metro cities in India, groups that would watch Khan explain each dance move step by step, and in an easy to do manner.
That she impacted lives beyond those of stars is evident through the respect she got from contestants on dance reality shows. Khan is remembered for her work on Nach Baliye and Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, trendsetting dance reality shows for India. But in her later appearances on numerous programs, one witnesses just how much fans and dance enthusiasts learnt from her. In an episode of High Fever Dance Ka Naya Tewar (on Zee TV), Ashish Patil and Rutuja Junnarkar presented her with ceremonial respect reserved for gurus. Both had met her for the first time while performing before her. They washed her feet and worshipped her like a guru on live TV. Both have emerged as choreographers slowly finding their feet in Indian showbiz today. Like established names Ahmed Khan, Farah Khan, Bosco Martis state, Saroj Khan influenced many to aim for fame and success in a challenging and competitive space.
While demystifying the cheeky 'Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai' on Nachle Ve to her students, Khan spoke about the teasing element of this song without hesitation. She insists that one must feel confident and sensual to bring alive such songs. This aspect of celebrating one's sexiness has gradually faded away in Bollywood songs, where thrusting and strutting moves dominate today. Khan brought the thumka in vogue but embellished it with a touch of boldness and beauty. Perhaps that is why she had taken on the mantle of teaching young actors like Sara Ali Khan, Ananya Pandey, and Alizeh Agnihotri the finer points of dance.
Dance reality shows will continue to flourish on TV as they bring exposure to new talent. But the maturity and command of Khan will be hard to replace.