Saroj Khan, choreographer who made Bollywood sparkle, dies at 71

Indian choreographer Saroj Khan was presented a special award during the 20th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards ceremony in Mumbai in 2019. Ms. Khan died Friday.
Indian choreographer Saroj Khan was presented a special award during the 20th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards ceremony in Mumbai in 2019. Ms. Khan died Friday.Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

Saroj Khan, a Bollywood choreographer whose film career spanned more than 60 years, and who created some of the industry’s most famous dance scenes in the 1980s and ’90s, died Friday at Guru Nanak hospital in Mumbai. She was 71.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest, a hospital spokesman said. Ms. Khan, who had been hospitalized since mid-June, tested negative for COVID-19 earlier this week, according to The Indian Express.

As the first female choreographer, Ms. Khan was a Bollywood pioneer, one of the few women working behind the camera at a time when nearly all the technicians were men. She joined the industry as a 3-year-old child actress in the early 1950s, and she became an assistant choreographer at age 12.


She choreographed nearly 2,000 songs, including many Bollywood classics. There was the frenetic “Ek Do Teen” from the movie “Tezaab” (1988), the raunchy “Choli Ke Peechay Kya Hai” from “Khalnayak” (1993), “Hawa Hawai” from “Mr. India” (1986), the sizzling “Dhak Dhak Karne Laga” from “Beta” (1991) and the lush songs from the period drama “Devdas” (2002). Much of her best-known work was in collaboration with actresses Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi, who died in 2018.

“I’m devastated by the loss of my friend and guru, Saroj Khan,” Dixit said on Twitter. “Will always be grateful for her work in helping me reach my full potential in dance. The world has lost an amazingly talented person. I will miss you.”

Ms. Khan was known for outdancing some of Bollywood’s most famous dancers, teaching them to sway their hips, move their feet and emote in a dozen different ways. She incorporated elements of Indian classical and folk dances into the songs she choreographed.

Saroj Khan was born Nirmala Nagpal in Mumbai on Nov. 22, 1948, to Kishanchand Sadhu Singh and his wife, Noni. Singh had been a prosperous businessman in Karachi, in what is now Pakistan, but lost everything in the violent Partition that divided the two countries in 1947. He and his wife moved to Mumbai, starting over in a tiny room in a slum.


Ms. Khan was born in that room, the first of six children. She recalled dancing with shadows there as a toddler, fascinated even then by what would become her calling. To supplement the family’s income, her father managed to get her work in Mumbai’s booming film industry as a child actress at age 3, under the name Saroj.

She had small roles in a number of films before becoming a background dancer at age 10, appearing in the classic “Howrah Bridge,” starring the actress Madhubala.

Soon afterward, Ms. Khan’s father died suddenly. In a 2012 documentary, “The Saroj Khan Story,” Ms. Khan described how her mother struggled to feed her and her siblings, and how they often went to bed hungry.

On the eve of the Diwali holiday, Ms. Khan worked up the courage to ask matinee star Shashi Kapoor for help. “I had just finished one song with him, I was the group dancer,” she said. “I went to him and told him, tomorrow is Diwali and I have nothing at home. I will get paid only after a week. He said, ‘I have 200 rupees right now, please take it.’ I’ll never forget it, that money helped me so much.”

Ms. Khan never formally trained as a dancer. Most classical dancers spend years studying under a teacher before they ever perform in public, but with a family to help support, that was not an option for Ms. Khan.


While still a young girl, she became an assistant to choreographer B. Sohanlal, working with him on some of the biggest films of the time. He taught her the basics of kathak, a classical Indian dance.

“When he started teaching me, I realized that I can’t keep a posture, I don’t know how to do this,” she recalled in the documentary. “He made me work very hard, I had to remain in the same posture for hours at a time, but he turned me into a good dancer.”

She said that in 1961, she and Sohanlal, who was 43 and married, became a couple, though she was only 13 at the time. She referred to the relationship as a marriage, but it is unclear whether it was legally recognized. They had two children, but Sohanlal refused to give them his surname, and he left the family in 1973 to return to his first wife in the city of Chennai.

In 1975, Ms. Khan married Sardar Roshan Khan, a businessman, taking his surname. They had a daughter, and Sardar Khan adopted Saroj Khan’s children from her relationship with Sohanlal.

Ms. Khan struggled for years as an assistant choreographer before getting a break in 1974 with the thriller “Geeta Mera Naam,” the directorial debut of the actress Sadhana, who was a fan of her work. In the 1980s, she choreographed the sensual dances of Sridevi in a series of blockbusters: “Nagina” (1986), “Mr. India” (1987), “Chandni” (1989) and “Lamhe” (1991). But it was her work with Madhuri Dixit in the 1990s that made her a household name in India.


The last film Ms. Khan worked on was a 2019 period drama, “Kalank,” which reunited her with Dixit. Over the past two decades, Ms. Khan had also become a familiar face on Indian television, as a judge on dance shows like “Naach Baliye,” “Boogie Woogie” and “Jhalak Dikhla Ja.”

Ms. Khan won three National Film Awards and eight Filmfare awards, the most any choreographer has received. She leaves a son, Raju Khan, also a choreographer, and a daughter, Sukaina Khan.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.