July 4, 2020, Sharmistha Gooptu
Female sexuality has always been a tricky thing. While a man’s bare body, bulging muscles or toned abs are fine for display, a woman’s body has had to be just enough clothed and enough bare (and she herself just enough coy and enough of bold), for it to be in the realm of either sensuous or pornographic. It has been a balance that only a few have been able to work out right. And in the world of Hindi films, one name that will always stand forth for how she got that balance right in the making of the greatest female superstars, is Saroj Khan. Saroj Khan’s dance moves were talked about for their sensuousness, sometimes bordering on the erotic. And in them, a positive female sexuality blazed across the screen.
Saroj Khan or ‘masterji’ as she was widely known, had a singular and long career, and it would not be an overstatement to say that she, in a large part, was responsible for shaping the star persona of Sridevi, and to a greater extent Madhuri Dixit, both rising to become stars who could call the shots in a male dominated industry.
The stardom of both Sridevi and Madhuri was created, to a large extent, in and through their dance numbers. And both had prioritised working with Saroj Khan, who helped create for them their most popular song numbers, and most potent of screen spaces. And within these spaces, the female actor came into her own, holding forth a body that was constituted and empowered by a desire that was uninhibited yet sensuous, unabashed but delicate. And wherein femininity was about its openness as much as it was about its suggestiveness.
Saroj Khan choreographed such chartbusters as Madhuri’s
‘Ek do teen’ from her first hit Tezaab,
‘Humko aaj-kal hai intezaar’,
‘Choli ke peeche’ or
Sridevi’s ‘Kate nahi katte’, and many more.
In her hands, the Hindi film song became a space for critically configuring female sexual desire and indulgence as a compelling, and a ‘done’ thing. And for playing it up for the camera in so direct a manner that it made for a remarkable agency, something quite unprecedented for the Hindi film heroine. In lesser hands, it stood the risk of being less suggestive and more explicit, which might have spoilt it entirely.
Saroj Khan had possibly known only too well that an enduring female assertiveness was best tested and done within the space of a song-and-dance, a space of performance and enjoyment as it were, and somehow standing apart from the main storyline of the movie. Occasionally, it entered a realm of fantasy like in the ‘Kate nahi katte’ number from Mr India. And therein lay its subversive power. And its ability to create powerful fantasies and dreams around these female actors, and enthrone them at a par with their male counterparts. Fantasies that did not simply involve a male gaze of the female body, but of having that gaze returned in a measure that was equal, if not more. The very powerful fantasy of the opposite sex taking over male prerogative and becoming an initiator, of a female body that was sometimes so vibrant that it almost seemed happy to be pleasuring its own self. But at the same time, Saroj Khan knew enough of her own world to keep that sensuality pleasurable and non-threatening, she knew what boundaries must not be crossed.
Saroj Khan was the first lady choreographer to get her due in credits. Not only for her hard work, but because she was a survivor in a male dominated and misogynist industry. And in her leading ladies that legacy of survival and trumping the system reached its culmination. Not for nothing does Madhuri Dixit acknowledge Saroj Khan as her ‘guru’. In that pairing, of teacher and her muse, was achieved the greatest of heights. In Madhuri, Saroj Khan was able to sculpt a persona that was assertive and yet did not challenge status quos, and it became the recipe for their success.
Saroj Khan was no great rebel, and it was possibly because she understood what best served her cause. Through her work, she bent the system and still survived in it.