One of Bollywood’s most influential women choreographers, Saroj Khan enjoyed an equally cult status across the border in Pakistan.
Her influence could be gauged from the fact that her iconic dance moves — particularly in the songs filmed on Madhuri Dixit through the 1990s — were copied by Pakistani choreographers of the time and we saw several local remakes of ‘Dhak Dhak Karnay Laga’, ‘Choli Ke Peechey’ and ‘Akhiyyan Milaoon.’
It was every Pakistan film heroine’s dream to be directed by Khan, and the producers’ wish to work with her; and some of them did get lucky.
In 1999, Shezad Gul, leading film producer and the owner of Evernew Studios in Lahore, was starting one of his career’s most ambitious movies, ‘Ghar Kab Aao Ge’, with an ensemble cast including Meera, Saima, Sana Fakhar, Shaan Shahid, Javed Sheikh and Noor Bokhari.
Gul tells Gulf News that he had big plans for the film’s six tracks.
“I remember discussing this with [actor] Manoj Kumar, who’s a family friend, and he put me in touch with Saroj Khan,” he says. “I was a little sceptical, because I knew she’d charge a bomb.”
“I told her that the budgets of Pakistan films are much lower [compared to Bollywood movies] and that I won’t be able to pay her regular fee but I was keen to work with her. She was kind enough to come down considerably on her price,” Gul adds.
They also agreed on a neutral shooting location — Manila, Philippines. Eventually, ‘Gar Kab Aao Ge’s’ songs were shot in around 35 days — “The artists would rehearse for two days for each song and shoot in the next three days; that was the pattern we followed.”
Gul recalls an occasion where Khan chuckled to him: “Main ek ustaadi karnay lagi hoon!” [I’m going to do a bit of an experiment.] She basically wanted to shoot on high-speed.” According to Gul, cinematographer Waqar Bokhari got apprehensive, “He didn’t know if the actors’ movements could be synched well on a high-speed shoot. But Saroj Khan knew her job well; she not only accomplished the task, she also helped Bokhari to understand the technique.
“She was a thorough professional,” he adds. “I enjoyed working with her. I’m sure the feeling was mutual, because she chose to extend her stay with us by almost a week. She also had her daughter and husband fly in.”
‘Ghar Kab Aao Ge’s’ leading lady Sana Fakhar, who had the opportunity to work with Khan again on ‘Yeh Dil Aapka Huwa’ (2002), a movie that broke box office records primarily on the strength of its hit soundtrack, seconds Gul: “She [Khan] was a hard task master, and came to the shoot well prepared. So then she wouldn’t allow a single [dance] step to be modified.”
Fakhar admits that it was “only after I had worked with Saroj ji that I realised that a choreographer directs the entire song and not just the dancer[s].”
About Khan’s style, Fakhar says, “She relied as much on facial expressions as on hand and body rhythms. She made her heroines look utterly eastern and beautiful.”
She also remembers Khan telling her, “‘Tu koi Indian actress lagti hai mujhe!’ [You look like an Indian actress to me.] For me it was a compliment.”
Actress Reema, for her directorial debut ‘Koi Tujh Sa Kahan’ (2005), had the rare chance to work with Khan.
“It was very difficult to approach her, because she was at her career’s peak,” says Reema, who is known for her dance skills. “I feel so blessed that she agreed to be a part of my film.
“Here I was connecting with her not just as an artist but also as a producer and director. It was a beautiful experience and I got to learn so much from her. Woh zubaan ki thori sakht thiin [she was a bit harsh at times], and you could easily take offence if it weren’t for the amazing results that you saw on the monitor. Boy, she’d light you up like no one!”
Creating fireworks on screen
‘Koi Tujh Sa Kahan’ turned out to be a hit. Together, Reema and Khan created fireworks on screen. The actress recalls how for one of the songs, ‘Soni Soni,’ which was to be filmed with a host of extras in Malaysia, Khan had demanded to shoot a long sequence in a single take.
“It was a daunting task. But when I quizzed her about it, her reply was, ‘I know you can pull this off, because you aren’t just any other dancer.’ It made my day!”
A little known fact about Khan is that her first tryst with Lollywood (the Pakistani film industry) happened some two decades before ‘Ghar Kab Aao Ge’.
As the story goes, Khan was visiting some friends in Lahore, circa 1979, when director Iqbal Hussain got wind of it — Khan worked as an assistant in Bollywood at the time — and requested her to choreograph a dance number for his film, ‘Josh’.
It was to be picturised on Rani, who was the top actress of the time. That Khan ended up doing the song using an alias Shahnaz, because Indian artists weren’t allowed to work in Pakistan back then, is history.