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Saroj Khan: Masterji to the stars

A photo series that captures the power of Saroj Khanthe choreographer who kept Bollywood on its toes

Saroj Khan worked with Madhuri Dixit on many films and won Filmfare’s first Best Choreographer award for ‘Ek Do Teen’ in ‘Tezaab’ (1988).
Saroj Khan worked with Madhuri Dixit on many films and won Filmfare’s first Best Choreographer award for ‘Ek Do Teen’ in ‘Tezaab’ (1988).

In the early 1990s, in an inspired moment I had reached out to Colin Jacobson, founding picture editor of the Independent Magazine, with a pitch on Bollywood. I was keen to photograph the world of Bombay cinema beyond its stars. Choreographer Saroj Khan, with the command she had on the industry then, seemed like the perfect subject.

Saroj Khan demonstrating a move with one of her assistants.

Back then, no major film could pass muster without Khan on the sets. Everybody on the sets, including the actors, called her Masterji. Jacobson wasn’t particularly keen but agreed to cover my flights. So, staying with friends, I followed Khan from one set to another for around four weeks.

Saroj Khan demonstrating a love scene (left) as Rekha looks on; (right) Rekha and Asha Sachdev in an unreleased Hindi adaptation of ‘Basic Instinct’.

It was an exciting time. Madhuri Dixit had just taken over the mantle from Sridevi and was blossoming. Khan worked a lot with her; and usually did three shifts a day. While she had a large crew of assistants to do her bidding, I was always struck by her light-footedness when she demonstrated a move herself.

Saroj Khan with Suniel Shetty.

I ran out of film, and as this was almost a self-funded project, I packed up and moved back to Delhi after a month. It’s one of my lifelong regrets that I didn’t pursue this longer (and the reason I set up a film grant for young photographers a few years ago).

Saroj Khan still holds the record for winning the most number of Filmfare Best Choreographer awards—eight.

I knew the photographs were too “voluptuous", too easy to like, if you will, and I’ve always struggled with how to exhibit them. The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi has one set that it shows from time to time, and I’ve dipped into this series a few times for my Museum Of Chance project, but they’ve never been exhibited all together before.

On set with a young Sanjay Leela Bhansali, a director’s assistant then.

Last year, my friend, the New York-based choreographer Mark Morris, put together a projection with the photographs on loop with Carnatic nadaswaram music for the White Light Festival at the Lincoln Center. Next week, they will be shown in India for the first time. Morris has done something quite extraordinary with his sequenced choreography. It is a poetic movement of the still image.

Saroj Khan teaching moves to Sanjay Dutt for ‘Tamma Tamma Loge’ in ‘Thanedaar’ (1990). Unprecedented for Hindi cinema, the song was over six-and-a-half-minutes long and had intricate Michael Jackson-style moves.

—As told to Anindita Ghose

Master Ji, a collaboration between Dayanita Singh and Mark Morris, will be on view at the Adil Shah Palace, Goa, as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival from 15-22 December, 10am-7pm.

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