My Voice - 2020

Dancing with the Stars

Remembering Choreographer Saroj Khan and Actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

By Shivani Tripathi

Hindi cinema has again witnessed the loss of two film personalities, iconic choreographer Saroj Khan and icon in the making, actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Both artists, who started their careers with no connections to the film industry, made a name for themselves through their hard work and perseverance.

Nirmala Nagpal took the screen name Saroj when she became a background dancer in movies as a way to support her family, which migrated from Pakistan during partition. After spending years as a dance assistant, Khan finally became an independent choreographer, or what was then called a Masterji, sixteen years after entering the industry. Cited as the first female choreographer of Hindi cinema, Khan received much appreciation for her ability to make heroines appear irresistible. After 1988's smash hit song "Ek Do Teen" from the film Tezaab, there was no looking back for her.

I've always wondered whether Khan had an idea of how many people around the world learned to dance from her. Through her choreography, Saroj Khan helped my friends and I express pure joy and exhilaration. I fondly remember dancing in basements with my little sister and childhood friends to songs that were immensely popular in the 90s, such as "Mere Haathon Mein Nau Nau", "Channe Ke Khet Mein", "Meri Banno Ki Aayegi Baraat" and many more. The heady mix of melody, choreography and beauty was a template of Indian femininity we could relate to more than what we witnessed on popular American films and television programs.

We also did couples dances such as "Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen" but the heroine solo dance number was the most beloved. During this time Khan and actress Madhuri Dixit became one of the most iconic duos in Hindi cinema and undoubtedly helped each other achieve greatness in their respective fields. Friends and I would anxiously await news of their collaborations and in the pre-social media world, would find out through film magazine and trailers embedded in VHS tapes and audio cassettes, when their film would release. Khan and Dixit being mentioned in an ad meant the song would be our next obsession and, therefore, our next performance at a function.

Even if there was no big occasion in the coming months, we would mimic their moves in our rooms and in front of bathroom mirrors. In a recent social media post dedicated to Khan, Dixit said, “Nobody can make women look so beautiful, desirable & sensuous on-screen like her. She made everything look like poetry in motion." As children we didn't quite grasp the meaning of sensuality but through imitating their hook steps, Khan and Dixit taught us it meant expressing self-love, self-appreciation through dance. When Khan choreographed, the woman danced for her own enjoyment and anyone else's judgment was secondary.

With the advent of global channels and second-generation filmmakers opting for more western sensibilities, meaning more jazz and fewer jhatkas, Saroj Khan's dynamic style of Indian classical-folk-filmi was no longer in demand like it once was. Yet Khan continued to be the favorite of so many and as adults, when friends and I would go to “Bollywood Nights" in New York City clubs, her songs would make us squeal in glee. We would rush to the dance floor and again dance in delight like we did as kids growing up in the suburbs of North Carolina. Khan wasn't Masterji only for those in cinema, but also for many like us who admired her work thousands of miles away from the movie studios of Mumbai.

While the passing of the 71-year-old choreographer left many feeling like they witnessed the end of an era, the sudden loss of 34-year-old Hindi film actor Sushant Singh Rajput left many in shock and disbelief.

It was not that long ago that Rajput entered the world of entertainment. My Nani and mother introduced me to the actor through the tele-serial Pavitra Rishta around 2010 and I knew better than to call them while the show was playing. When visiting home, I would catch glimpses of Rajput's impressive dancing on the dance reality show, Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa on which he was a contestant. In my family, Rajput was seen as an impressive talent and as someone who deserved bigger and better opportunities. The 2013 Hindi feature film Kai Po Che!, which was both a critical and commercial success, marked Rajput's entry into Hindi cinema.

He would act in ten additional movies over a seven-year span and played diverse characters from an inexperienced yet sharp detective, to Indian cricketer M.S. Dhoni, to a dacoit searching for redemption. Rajput brought youthful spirit and a much studied approach to the roles he played, and was an artist who understood and valued subtlety. After his passing, people watched his interviews and came to know more about the film industry outsider, an actor who was formally trained in dance and theater.

His life story was more like that of a Hindi film character, and hardly resembled the privileged upbringing many top Hindi film heroes enjoyed. Born and raised in Bihar, Rajput and his family moved to Delhi after the devastating loss of his mother. Academically gifted, he placed in the top ten of the Delhi College of Engineering entrance examination, an exam taken by many tens of thousands across India. He was also a National Olympiad winner in the subject of physics and tutored on the side for pocket money. In the shallow world of showbiz academic excellence and achievement doesn't resonate with most filmwallahs. But it does with the average Indian.

When old photos were shared of Rajput spending time with family in what looked like a typical middle-class Indian home, many felt the young man with no industry connections could have been a family member or a good friend. Rajput's death quickly reignited the debate around nepotism in the Hindi film industry. To many it looked as if the film industry, which values dynastic surnames and powerful godfathers more than talent, sacrificed a common man so industry insiders could further thrive. Despite brilliant performances in films like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and Sonchiriya, and finding commercial success in movies like M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Kedarnath and the recent Chhichhore, it was argued that if he had the right film pedigree, Rajput would have easily been deemed the biggest star of his generation.

The coveted Millennial and Generation Z demographics, who consume cinema-related content through social media, took to online platforms to vent their frustration at “Nepo Kids" and kingmakers, leading many star kids to stop posting content and even leave social media all together. Speculation continues as to why Rajput ended his life, as does a formal investigation by the Mumbai police. Rajput's final film, Dil Bechara, will release on the Disney+ Hotstar streaming platform, to both subscribers and non-subscribers, on July 24 and if the film's trailer garnering over 70 million views in a week is any indication, millions will likely watch Rajput's swan song.

After the passing of Sushant Singh Rajput, I am much more aware of the power an audience member has to heartily support merit over mediocrity, and to distinguish meaningful content from glitzy publicity. As someone who loves watching Hindi cinema, I choose to honor the legacy of Khan and Rajput by watching, or re-watching, their work and appreciating how their creativity has both entertained and moved me.

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Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510