Saroj Khan was part of a well-established tradition of distinguished choreographers who contributed to the form of dance on the screen or as part of the dramatic/cinematic performance.
Dance had to play a role and an integral one to the development of the plot and character. This was the important point to follow and steps were taken accordingly.
In the past, the expertise had rested with the male. There was no concept of a teacher other than an ustad, a guru or a pundit. The female shagirds came under his tutelage. Even if the artists subsequently became great exponents of the form, they still could not reach the status of an ustad or guru. This was a particularly exclusive male prerogative.
Saroj Khan was able to break this stereotype and emerge as a choreographer who could be on her own without a male reference. Eventually, she attained the status that allowed her to direct both male and female artists. In this sense, she was a ground breaker who set new standards as other women were doing in other areas of performing arts.
Like the mainstream Indian cinema centred round Mumbai, the dance it developed, too on many sources. It would be difficult to nail down a particular form as being quintessentially India film dance. It constantly changed and was made up as an eclectic assemblage. It was also more open to external influences, including Hollywood.
Dance has been an integral part of the cinematic performance in this land. The primary objective of cinema in India is, and was, to tell a story. There seemed be no distinction between katha, nritya and sangeet. Together they constituted the natak. In the Natshastra, written about two and a half centuries ago, and attributed to Bharat, all these were labeled as constituent parts of performance. The Western distinction among various genres of performing arts did not hold here.
So, in a dramatic performance song and dance were as integral elements as the plot and the characters. As performance transitioned from the stage to the screen, the same format and essentials were followed. As music remained at the centre stage, so did dance. Actually, it soon outstripped the plot and the characters and became the main sources of attraction for the audiences.
Dance as an autonomous form had two strict dimensions: the pure fascination with movement, as extolled by the human body; and the ability to tell a story through gestures and movements. The local dance was used to tell a story, usually of an epic nature, but some also took delight in just the movement of the physical form without attempting to tell a story.
The autonomous form of dance developed in India and continued to feed the dance in films. However, it could not escape the overarching nature of film dance. In this dance, there was an air of contemporaneity, which the classical form discouraged. It was easier for the lay audiences to identify with the character and the plot and its relationship to the dance than in its more abstract form.
Some dancers too made their contribution to the evolution of film dances. They included Gopi Krishan, Jaishri and Sindiya followed by Helen who took the dance away from the classical and made it ring with the more liberated woman expressing herself with little reservation. It was no longer shameful to express one’s desire – the more openly, the better.
Saroj Khan was not unfamiliar with the classical form. She had started talking part in films from a very early age and taken to dance under the tutelage of Sohanlal, one of the leading film choreographers in India.
It took her a while to blossom on her own, but once she did, she held a firm grip on the pulse of the current trends and the audience’s expectations.
The early Indian heroines were not dancers. However, with Vijantimala, dancers took centre stage and were preferred in the main female roles. Then came Padmani, Asha Parekh, and Hema Malini to be followed by Sridevi. This was the time when Saroj Khan was in her most creative phase. She started crafting the careers of the likes of Madhuri Dixit after grooming Sridevi. She even made a dancer out of Aishwarya Rai.
The male hardly danced in the early years of the cinema. That changed in the ’70s when the male actor was also expected to chip in. Saroj Khan took part in this transition and some of the Bollywood heroes only became famous and stayed up there because they were primarily dancers. This change was accepted by the Indian cinema as it was preceded by what Hollywood had already achieved.
A very important dimension to take into consideration in dance is restraint. There is always a tendency to overstep and go beyond the bind of dance to pure physical suggestion. In cinema, the temptation is overriding because it is supposed to draw a quick response from the audience. The pressure is immense, especially in an item number. To be overly suggestive is to go into the domain of the raunchy.
As film is open to a diverse audience since it is mass-produced, the dances can be there for their own sake to add that bit of the dripping sensuality. A good choreographer, however, has to maintain that balance. As the demand for more loud gestures in dance increased, Saroj Khan tried to maintain that balance. This may be called her real contribution to the Indian cinema.
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore