Saroj Khan and Madhuri Dixit's collaboration is a storied string of stunning song sequences. But if you watch all the popular ones successively, you may realise they tell a story of their own.
Khan, who passed away on 3 July, designed songs as comprehensive recitals when seen in isolation, but they also lent themselves equally well to the narrative of the films they were a part of. Her maiden collaboration with Dixit was their breakthrough 'Ek Do Teen' in N Chandra's 1988 directorial Tezaab. The action romance gave Dixit her first major break in the Hindi film industry, but also announced her arrival as a formidable dancer.
Khan played on Dixit's inherent innocence when she introduced her as a girl experiencing first love. The colour palette of the song, including Dixit's costume at the centre, is a shade of pink, and the dominating motif on the set is a life-sized bugal. These symbols make sense at various levels since Dixit is seen 'counting
down up' to the expected arrival of her first love. The longing that hangs in the balance does not paint Dixit as a victim of self-absorbed, dismissive patriarchy. Rather, she is seen revelling in that feeling. Even when she expresses frustration, she does so by blithely tossing-and-turning on the floor or mirthfully fake-slamming her head on stairs. As "din bane hafte, hafte mahine, mahine ban gaye saal," she gives up and plays the bugle herself, announcing the arrival of both a dancing rockstar and her first taste of resilient love.
The next song worth exploring is 'Humko Aajkal Hai Intezar' from Sailaab (1990). Dixit is discovered in mermaid-fashion when she is captured unconscious from the sea in a Marathi community's fishing net. Here, the colour palette turns orange, and Dixit's costume yellow. These essentially signify the sunrise in her life (or the sunset?), as she looks out for love in all directions. Her longing is deeper here, just like the shade of the colour she is wearing. She is dressed in a traditional Maharashtrian attire, and lets out the latkas and jhatkas when prompted by the fisherwomen in signature Lavani style.
Here, the back dancers assume a greater role as they sing the stanzas, leaving the chorus for Dixit, the opposite to the usual case. They make her realise how she is behaving restlessly because she is in love. But she does not let the discomposure surface even a bit as she celebrates the longing, rather than grieving it. In the end of the song, the fisherwomen community sing, "Aa gaya wo... aa gaya." Like Dixit, we cannot see the man in question, but end up dancing with abandon like the Marathi mulgi-mermaid.
In 'Dhak Dhak' from Indra Kumar's 1992 film Beta, Dixit is seen romancing the hero (Anil Kapoor). She has a man around, but is not impatient even after all the waiting. She wants to give it time, to let the feeling sink in. She is clad in orange yet again, but the cut is more fluid and the shade more ablaze. It represents both the fire of passion, and the rising phoenix that she poses as, in the midst of waterfalls and haystacks. Khan makes sure that the fire within her is untamed, through steps that assert her femininity but never provoke the man. She does not douse the fire, but only lets it simmer with occasional flareups, in an effort to let the long-awaited feeling stay.
'Choli Ke Peeche,' from Subhash Ghai's 1993 crime drama Khalnayak, explores what is a rites of passage for every woman expressive of her sexuality. It sees an older Neena Gupta, in maroon (like blood left to dry) attire, point fingers at Dixit's 'insistent' gestures and 'troublesome' reputation. But Dixit continues to stand her ground by shifting the blame from her actions to the male gaze fixated on her. She insists that she does not yearn for the 'laakhon deewane' unlike Gupta, but has her eyes set on a singular man. Khan cloaks Dixit in traditional Rajasthani colours here, as she reiterates that women across cultures, whether they wear ghagra-cholis or nauvari sari, pride themselves on their self-sustenance.
'Chane Ke Khet Mein,' from Rahul Rawail's 1994 psychological thriller Anjaam, is designed as the story of a woman meeting her sexual fantasy (you know where!). The choreography follows the picture the lyrics paint rather closely, with Dixit often using her left hand as that of the man in her head. As her expressions and moves, like the lyrics she lip-syncs to, blame the man for initiating, her mischevious eyes and roguish smile quietly speak of her wilful partaking. But the situation in the film and the supporting visuals tell us that Dixit is merely dedicating a song to a friend at her godbharai ceremony. She celebrates her friend's sexual fulfillment as she looks forward, quite vividly, to one of her own.
Moving to 'Akhiyaan Milaaoon Kabhi' from Indra Kumar's 1995 action romance Raja, Dixit is seen shaking a leg with Sanjay Kapoor in a garage. The style turns into hip-hop, and the colour palette becomes crimson red. Dixit seems the closest to love here, as she complains of "bina payal ke baje ghungroo" (tingling without a reason) even when she exchanges glances or makes any form of physical contact with her lover. Khan makes Dixit dance with her eyes here as the latter declares she is heads over heels in love.
'Maar Dala' from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 2002 historical romance Devdas released comes seven years later. Here, Dixit plays Chandramukhi, a courtesan, who has clearly had several experiences of 'love' but has never encountered one she does with the titular character, essayed by Shah Rukh Khan. She confesses it is the first time in her life that she feels ambitious or envious with respect to love. These feelings are denoted by green, a rare colour used in the Bollywood aesthetic, that she carries off with elan. She admits she is heading to a path of self-destruction by asking for too much love, but she maintains that it is of her own volition (Read: "Khushi ne humari humein maar dala").
The final song Khan choreographed was also, poetically, filmed on Dixit. 'Tabaah Ho Gaye' from Abhishek Varman's 2019 period drama Kalank fits perfectly as both the climactic song in the film and a self-actualisation ode to Dixit and Khan's love for longing. As the song begins, Dixit walks back into her haveli with a red cloak, that she soon disrobes to reveal within the 'colour of the hour' " yes, orange yet again.
It is extremely difficult to choreograph a 'sad dance' song, that too with the temptation of giving in to a peppy Madhuri Dixit number. But Saroj Khan knows better. She taps into the emotion prevalent at that point in the film, and also pushes Dixit to do something she has not attempted before.
Here, Dixit is mourning the loss of a greenly infected part, and her resurrection from the ashes. She grieves lost love but the muted smile and the reassuring eyes claim she knew exactly what she was getting into right from the beginning. Even at the end of the song, Dixit performs with a determination that stems from her belief in the cyclic nature of life. And somewhere in all the swooning, there is great solace that going all over the process of incessant longing, eventual heartbreak, and eventual healing is bound to be worth it every time.
As Saroj Khan leaves Madhuri Dixit to take the stories forward, she left behind enough moments on screen to look back at, and long for; like the two longed for a love that was elusively rewarding.