Many reigning Bollywood actresses in the late 80's and 90's " Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, Manisha Koirala...felt secure if choreographer Saroj Khan was on board, and if in case she wasn't, there have been instances where she was called at the last minute even if the film was being shot in a foreign locale.
"I loved it when Saroj ji was doing any of my songs; I had complete faith in her. If she was doing the song I knew for the fact that it would turn out amazing, or I would look amazing in it at the least. I wasn't the only one, every actress before me, including Sridevi, Madhuri felt the same," says Kajol.
Kajol met Khan when she was 18-years-old and shooting for Baazigar's title track. "I remember her telling me, 'Arre, tu heroine kaise ban gayi?' (How did you become an actress?). She treated me like a baby, who I was at that point of time." I used to hug her and sit in her lap. And one thing that struck me about her was that she was such a fantastic teacher. I tried my best to learn as much as I can but I don't think I was able to achieve even the one-tenth of that."
Sometime in the late 90's, Juhi Chawla insisted upon having Khan for Rakesh Roshan directed Karobar (also starring Anil Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor) especially for a 'seductive' song that she wasn't too comfortable doing without the choreographer she trusted the most.
"We were shooting for Karobar in South Africa, and we were supposed to do this seductive number. I was feeling self-conscious and was very nervous. I started crying and insisted that I will do the song provided Saroj ji directed it. Rakesh called Saroj ji who was in India and already overloaded with work. She was shooting back-to-back, doing three shifts in a row because most actresses wanted her on their projects. We waited for her for a day and she came down to Cape Town and shot the song for us," reminisces Chawla.
Much earlier, Khan had won Chawla's trust when the latter went for an image makeover, from a girl-next-door to a more glamorous avatar for Lootere, alongside Sunny Deol. "I had to do this song 'Main Teri Rani Tu Raja'. I was nervous because I had to wear just a white shirt and shoot while frolicking on the beach. Now I was coming from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. For me it was an entire image makeover to go from ghagra cholis to wear just a shirt on a beach. But Saroj ji handled it so well. The way she shot it and what it turned out like, I looked like a million. She could make everything look classy and aesthetic. It didn't look cheap, or just a song," says Chawla.
Mr India director Shekhar Kapur is most certain that the film would not have been the same without Saroj Khan. "Saroj's genius lay in her dance. All art is the way you express yourself. And Saroj's art was dance. And not only was she like a teacher on the set. She loved what she did. Just because it's 'Bollywood' it should not make a difference. She adapted her genius, her art, to Bollywood¦where she grew up in and further defined a generation of heroines," says Kapur, furthering, "You had to see her dance as she rehearsed with Sridevi. She was not just a genius at movement. She was a genius at expressions. She was mesmerising and what energy. With Saroj Khan went the particular Indian style of body movement. Her choreography defined the Indian woman in all her forms."
Many years ago when Khan was asked to describe Anil Kapoor's dance skills, she had called him a practical one at that and someone who wouldn't try or experiment what didn't suit him.
Says Kapoor, "She made the most beautiful dance compositions and turned many non-dancers into dancers. I was fortunate enough to work with her in many films (Mr India, Tezaab, Ram Lakhan, Beta, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja) and got to learn a lot from her. She brought out the dancer in me that I didn't even know I had those skills. Her movements were magic and her face could express so many beautiful emotions."
"With her grace and artistry, Saroj-ji found a place in all our hearts that no one has ever been able to take. She has left her mark and will be remembered forever..I will miss her a lot," Kapoor adds.
The first song that Mahima Chaudhry ever shot for a film was with Saroj Khan for her debut film Subhash Ghai's Pardes, opposite Shah Rukh Khan. "I did both, 'I Love My India' and 'Mere Piya' with her. I was extremely nervous and told her upfront on the first day that I haven't learnt any form of dance and I don't know dance at all. She told me not to worry and further stumped me with the words, 'Maine achche achhon ko dance karwaya hai' (I have made many non-dancers dance). Then she told me that she would give me simple steps and I shouldn't do too much rehearsal because my character was a normal girl that didn't demand the steps of an experienced dancer. Yet, I was so afraid of messing up that I used to take her assistant on the side and tell her to rehearse with me. But she would give you steps and movements as per your capacity. Then, she taught me six or seven basic steps telling me that all Bollywood songs were based on these steps. There was something called a 'dip' and all Bollywood songs were based on that dip movement, she said. 'Rehearse them and you will never have trouble', she said, and trust me those six or seven steps held me through," says Chaudhry.
"But getting the expressions right was more important for her. She believed that if you got the expressions right then it didn't matter how perfect your body movements were. She would give very soft expressions almost like dialogue delivery, so you could understand what the song meant by her expressions. She made women look very sensuous and that was her appeal," Chaudhary adds.
"Saroj ji's forte was expressions," says Sanjay Kapoor who grooved on her hit songs like 'Akhiyaan Milaoon Kabhi' and 'Nazrein Mili Dil Dhadka'. His first Bollywood song 'Aata Nahi' from Prem (1990) was also shot by Khan.
"She used to always say, 'Sanjay, rehearse and get the steps right but the main thing was your expression. If that is right in front of the camera only then you will look like a good dancer. And even if you are a great dancer but you can't give the best of expressions then it won't work. You must first enjoy the song'. Saroj ji used to often give the example of Bhagwan Dada (veteran actor-director and one of the first dancing superstars of Indian cinema) saying how graceful he was and how he never put an effort. You could feel that he was enjoying the shot, she would say," he says.
"I have done over 25 songs with Saroj ji and many of those were hit tracks," he adds. "'Nazrein mili' song was basically style. She told me to just enjoy the steps which were very basic and I did most of it myself because she rightly believed that nobody can teach you the rhythm and you have to just let go of yourself. She gave steps and moves depending upon the capacity and skill of the actor and not just because she liked something. Now, she knew that I can't match Govinda or Hrithik Roshan in dancing, so she would give me something that I looked great doing. She ruled the industry because of her expressions."
Tusshar Kapoor, who worked with Khan in Kuch To Hai and Shart: Challenge, says the latter's song 'Dil Tera Badmaash' was one of the best dance numbers of his career because of its choreography. He adds that the song is special for him especially due to its 'old school style' and the expressions, which he says were 'amazingly shot'.
Watching Khan dance was a treat for the actresses those days and they would insist that she show them the moves while rehearsing. "It was such a joy to watch somebody with their body movement and facial expressions in so much sync with the entire song whatever the song it didn't matter," says Kajol.
She continues, "I remember waiting for my shot at the Filmalaya Studio. Saroj ji's team was rehearsing for this song called 'Rang De' from Takshak which was eventually done by Tabu. I loved the song and I asked her assistants around if Saroj ji was coming. She came for the rehearsal and I told her to dance for me and she did so. She always danced for me whenever I asked her and I would sit awestruck like a little child in front of her and watch. She was fantastic on the dance floor. She was one of the hardest disciplinarians, one of the hardest teachers but she also gave you that much amount of knowledge, it was all so worth it."
Chawla shares a similar experience, calling Khan's dance performances 'mesmerising': "Saroj ji, like a lot of other choreographers was short, little plump, with not the perfect beautiful figure or the perfect beautiful face but when she would begin to dance you just couldn't take your eyes off her. Everybody else around faded into oblivion, she was so mesmerising and she had the finest sense of how to take shots from the direction point of view, to expressions, whether that had to be naughty, or seductive or sad. She was superlative."
Kajol believes Khan tried keeping herself relevant by learning new dance forms, and recruiting young dancers in her troupe. "She had the experience of classical, jazz, hip-hop styles of dancing but she made sure that she was updated with the current and contemporary trends. And if she wasn't then she made sure that people around her could give her pointers and help her. She was intelligent enough to understand that she needed people who knew the contemporary style," says the actress.
"Most importantly, she had a lot of technical knowledge of shooting a song and it was amazing how she was able to get the mood of the song and she would shoot it exactly how it would look on screen. I don't think anybody got sexy and naughty the way she did," she adds.