2 August 2020

In the dark of the night

My Mirror column:

The absorbing Raat Akeli Hai stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a UP cop learning a little about himself as he unravels a web of murderous intrigue

Radhika Apte in a still from the atmospheric new murder mystery Raat Akeli Hai

The shaadi ka ghar has been a favoured backdrop for the dramatic unfolding of countless Hindi film romances, but it’s likely never been the setting for a murder mystery. Nor has the ubiquitous wedding video been turned into evidence for a police investigation before. Honey Trehan’s slow-burn directorial debut Raat Akeli Hai does both things with delicious conviction, giving us an atmospheric whodunit that feels deeply embedded in the dystopic state of Uttar Pradesh. What makes the film even more satisfying is that Trehan – a long-time casting director who has done films with Vishal Bhardwaj, Meghna Gulzar and Abhishek Chaubey – casts Nawazuddin Siddiqui as his detective hero, and places his unmarriedness centrestage.

Saddled with the near-giggleworthy name of Jatil (literally ‘complex’) Yadav, Siddiqui’s plain-speaking Kanpuriya cop is introduced as a man with some complexes of his own. We first set eyes on him in a photograph that his mother (the effortlessly watchable Ila Arun) is trotting out at a wedding, attempting to convince a female guest that her son is an eligible match. The fair-skinned young woman has her spangly sari draped over a spaghetti strap blouse, but her views on skin colour remain hopelessly unreconstructed. “Rang saaf nahi hai (His complexion isn't clear),” she says, dismissing Jatil at a glance. “Par mann saaf hai (But his heart is),” says Arun, turning away only to be accosted by her embarrassed and angry son.

But while we might sympathise with the fact that Jatil’s dark skin makes him an inferior candidate in a world where Ajay Devgn is the exception that proves the rule, his own views on women reveal a rather muddy mann. “Did you see the clothes she was wearing?” he says to his mother. “I just want a susheel girl.” As the film unfolds, however, Jatil’s socially-learned disgust for the sexually independent woman (“Tumhare jaisi aurat ko apne paas phatakne bhi na dein”) clashes often with his simultaneous attraction to what he acknowledges as courage and honesty.

And no wonder, given the rarity of a “saaf mann” in RAH's grim world. In a scenario with several shades of last year’s Hollywood crime comedy Knives Out, Jatil is called upon to investigate the murder of the patriarch of a well-off family whose members seem not to like each other very much, and who might all have had motives to kill him. Knives Out hid its sharp politics under parodic excess. Here Trehan and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar (Haider, Tumbadd) create a brilliantly atmospheric web of oppressive rooms and half-lit corridors to match a much darker milieu that feels true to present-day North India: corrupt, power-hungry, sexually exploitative and two-faced. When our hero gets there, the terrace and balconies are still lit up for the wedding that has just taken place, of the widowed dead man to his much younger mistress. And the sight of the new wife Radha (Radhika Apte, looking the part but never completely inhabiting it), still in her wedding finery, sitting in her upstairs room with a ghunghat half covering her face, is very much part of the filmi marriage fantasy (from Mother India to Kabhi Kabhie to Tanu Weds Manu) that RAH both evokes and toys with.

What Trehan and his exceptional screenwriter Smita Singh do with elan is to make that image of the marriageable woman the film's recurring subtext. The dogged small-town detective whose Achilles’ Heel is attractive women has been with us at least since Polanski’s Chinatown. Here the mirage-like quality of Siddiqui’s first sight of Radha also reminds one of Manorama Six Feet Under, Navdeep Singh’s 2007 adaptation of Chinatown. But while our cop hero may have a soft spot for the supposed femme fatale, almost everyone else (in the family and beyond) has already decided that she must be the murderess. “Woh ladies rijha rahi hai aapko (She's seducing you),” Siddiqui's colleague says knowingly. When Siddiqui protests that she barely gives him the time of day, the colleague pounces on him with the sort of unsustainable circular logic that otherwise rational men single women out for: “That's exactly it! That's how women seduce you, by not giving you attention.”

The slow accretion of words and images creates a dark picture of this skewed world, in which women are damned if they don't – and certainly damned if they do. From Siddiqui's “duffer” colleague to the dead man's feckless but good looking “hero-type” heir, every man in town is out to make a sanskaari match, while secretly lusting after women whose attraction is precisely that they're not 'wife material'. “Baazaaru se gharelu hone ka safar kitna kathin hai aapko maloom hai?” asks the politician Munna Raja (Aditya Srivastava). And yet the gharelu women, who've won the supposed big prize of marriage and respectability, can end up more patriarchal than the men, resorting to ever-lower measures to guard their practically nonexistent turf.

Faced with this intriguing cocktail of lust and revenge, our UP policeman hero presents himself as “not such a low-level man”. Jatil's striving for moral fibre is real, and yet it is also clear that he must operate within the system as it currently exists. And that system is one where the extra-legal has become the norm, where it is a public secret that only a saffron-hued MLA can risk owning a tannery, and an inconvenient cop is as easily 'encountered' as an out-of-favour gangster. In this post-procedure world, even being a stickler for truth can now mean finding extra-legal ways to uncover it. Whether it's marriage or murder, the show must go on. 

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 Aug 2020.

Book Review: The Dark Hours

I reviewed the new translation of a 97-year-old Bengali book, for India Today magazine.

A 1923 bhadralok account of Calcutta's seamy side is sociological and voyeuristic by turns.

In 1842, chief magistrate J.H. Patton drew up an elaborate plan to rid Calcutta of crime. Splitting the city geographically into upper, middle and lower divisions, Patton appointed 300 constables to the police in each. Their daytime duties were not unexpected, “preventing breaches of the peace, arresting persons against whom a hue and cry has been raised, ...drunk and disorderly persons and fakeers, and others making an obscene and disgusting exposure of their persons...” But at night, the constables were instructed to “on no account allow any person to pass along the streets or highways with a bundle, box or package after nightfall, without stopping him and examining the contents of his load...”. Night, it seemed, made everyone a suspect. The just-arrived rural migrant was to be treated as a potential burglar, or, at the very least, immoral. The city after dark was by definition illicit, a place of danger and debauchery.

In 1923, a well-known writer of Bangla detective fiction and children’s literature set out to map that city in words. Eighty years after Patton’s attempted clean-up, Calcutta had only grown in size, complexity and criminality. While claiming literary inspiration from Kaliprasanna Sinha’s irreverent 1862 urban classic Hutum Penchar Naksha, Hemendra Kumar Roy also insisted that his eyewitness account of the city’s seamier side would warn “[f]athers of young boys and girls where and what the real dangers are”. But the fact that Roy published Raater Kolkata under a pseudonym suggests he knew how his “adult male audience” would read it.

Recently translated into English by Rajat Chaudhuri as Calcutta Nights, Raater Kolkata is fascinating as a document of the 20th century city, but also for the tightrope it walks between salacious gossip and moral censure. The level of detail varies, from pure urban legend (e.g. women “from the western or north western part of the country” being sexually serviced by hired men in empty houses “on the banks of the Ganga, in the Barabazar area”) to descriptions that seem to draw on long observation.

Prostitution, for instance, is subdivided by race, class and location, from the Chowringhee hackney carriages that “take you to a white-skinned beauty”, to Jorabagan streets in winter, where poor sex workers stand “when the pye-dogs have also vanished”. The bhadralok in Roy clearly takes pride in his first-person exploits: entering an opium den in old Chinatown, escaping a police raid on a Mechhobazar goondas’ den, watching two sanyasinis fight it out at the Nimtola burning ghat. But it is in his descriptions of urban commingling, Durga Puja processions, or the theatre, that the anxieties of the upper caste male truly come to the fore. This is a book to be read as a sociological comment as much on the city as on its author.

Published in India Today, 1 Aug 2020.

27 July 2020

All the perfumes of Arabia

My Mirror column:

Uplifting and devastating by turns, Vinod Kamble’s 2019 debut feature
Kastoori (The Musk) is the kind of coming-of-age narrative that Indian cinema needs more of.

The first time we see Gopi’s face, he has just set eyes on a filthy public toilet. For most viewers of Vinod Kamble’s Kastoori (The Musk), the sight of that toilet – the next shot – would likely be enough to make us retch. Or at least make us want to bang the door shut and get as far away as we can. Gopi, however, can’t do that. He must step into the cubicle instead, a broom in one hand and a bucket of water in the other, his face impassive as he gets to the cleaning work he does alongside his mother.

As Kamble’s powerful debut feature proceeds, we see his teenaged young protagonist Gopi do all kinds of jobs that remain unofficially yet inescapably ‘reserved’ for Dalits in India, crucial jobs shunned by caste Hindus for their proximity to dirt and the dead. He helps his father bury unclaimed dead bodies for the police department, he assists other young men from the community in cleaning out septic tanks and, finally, assists a doctor who conducts autopsies.

Kastoori, available to view online till August 2 as part of the 2020 edition of the New York Indian Film Festival, derives much of its verisimilitude from Kamble’s own experiences growing up in a Dalit family of sanitation workers in Barshi village in Maharashtra’s Solapur. As with Kamble’s own life, education seems to offer Gopi the only way out of a poverty exacerbated by caste. But as the film makes sadly clear, staying in school is not easy, precisely under these circumstances.

Dekhti main tere ko, kaise kaam pe nai aata tu [Let me see how you don’t come to work],” says Gopi’s mother angrily, before tearing up his textbook. Gopi is good at school and wants desperately to continue, but she does not have the wherewithal to support him. “Number aane se pet nahi bharta [Good marks won’t fill your stomach],” she scoffs. He has to earn his keep, and that means leaving school if that’s the only way his father’s job can stay in the family.

Poverty-stricken parents pulling a child out of school to join a caste-bound family occupation has been the theme of at least two previous coming-of-age Marathi films with Dalit protagonists. In Rajesh Pinjani's 2012 release Baboo Band Baja (available on a streaming website), a bartanwali and midwife tries to keep her little son in school, but finds herself battling her husband, who believes his son cannot escape a life playing music at funerals, as his grandfather and father did. In Nagaraj Manjule’s pioneering 2013 debut Fandry (the word means ‘pig’), a teenager from a pig-rearing Dalit agricultural family suffers his father's fatalism alternating with drunken rages. “You won’t die if you bunk one more day!” he says the first time we see him speak to his son.

Caste isn’t too sharply foregrounded in Baboo Band Baja, but there are frequent references that suggest it, such as the father’s angry complaint that band-wallas are always made to wait outside, never invited in. Fandry (also on a streaming platform) is much more upfront about caste: the visibility of Jabya’s ‘polluting’ work outside school instantly cancels out the minimal claims to constitutional equality made inside school walls. Kastoori carries on that necessary, painful task of measuring the Indian state’s promises against what society actually offers – and it does so with quiet aplomb.

The same classmates who shake Gopi’s hand when he wins an essay prize (Kamble makes a point by making it a Sanskrit essay) turn against him after they spy him helping clean a septic tank. “Here comes the sweeper, he stinks,” they murmur. “We should tell the teacher.” But Kamble knows that the schoolchildren holding their noses are only one end of the systemic rot – at the other end is the doctor who insists that the sweeper’s schoolgoing son replace his father, and the activist who sees no irony in a child doing the back-end work for a workshop about Dalit children’s education.

Caught between beaten-down alcoholic fathers and hard-scrabble frustrated mothers, youngsters in these films find other allies. Gopi’s lovely grandmother with the quavering voice is one such. Others find support outside the family. In a plot-line that presages Manjule’s massively successful Sairat (2016), when Fandry’s Jabya gets shyly besotted with an upper caste classmate called Shalu, he confides in the local cycle shop owner Chankya (played by Manjule himself). Close friendships between boys are also central to all these films – Kastoori wouldn’t be half as uplifting as it is without the warmth of Gopi’s close friend Aadim, the son of a Qureishi butcher who also understands what it’s like to be perceived as doing ‘unclean’ work.

Inspired by Iranian cinema’s use of children’s stories, debacles abound – a lost schoolbag in Baboo Band Baja, a crushed cycle in Fandry, a trickster selling fake goods in Kastoori -- while the search for beauty abides. The mythical ‘kali chimni’ (black sparrow) for which Jabya roams the woods in Fandry metamorphoses, in Kastoori, into Aadim and Gopi’s saving up to acquire the legendary perfumed substance of the film’s title. But Kamble ends his film on a remarkable note, silently redefining what beauty means. In a visual homage to the stone-throwing last shot of Fandry, that was itself a homage to the last shot of Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, Gopi flings away the bottle of perfume. Because perfumed beauty would be camouflage, and camouflage is not the answer.

26 July 2020

The Reel Life of MS Sathyu - II

My Mirror column (a sequel to last week's piece):

In honour of his 90th birthday earlier this month, a look back at MS Sathyu's under-watched 1994 film Galige, currently streaming online.

At the very start of Garm Hava, Balraj Sahni's Salim Mirza waves goodbye to a train at the station and sits himself down in a horse-drawn cart. The Agra of the 1940s is small enough for the tangawalla to be acquainted with each customer. Who have you dropped off this time, he asks. “My elder sister,” says Mirza, adding a gloomy metaphorical remark about how thriving trees are getting cut down in this wind. Yes, agrees the tangawalla, those who refuse to uproot themselves will dry up. Then he adds a Hafeez Jalandhari couplet, rendered in its most charming street avatar: “Wafaaon ke badle jafa kar riya hai/ Main kya kar riya hun, tu kya kar riya hai?” (I'd translate that as “You torment me in exchange for my loyalty/What am I doing, and what are you doing?”)

What's remarkable is the spectrum of moods that the sequence encompasses. There is the sombre farewell, the meditative remark, the deep sense of living through a eventful time -- and yet all of it is leavened by the comfortable chatter of the everyday, by casual acquaintances who make up one's sense of home, and an ear for humour in the minor key that keeps one from dipping into the doldrums. Galige, which Sathyu directed in 1994, attempts to create the same kind of energy.

The film has two narrative threads, both with immense potential for melodrama -- but Sathyu staves off all maudlinness. Currently playing in the Indian section of an international film streaming platform, Galige centres around a young Bangalorean woman named Nithya. She lives alone in a rented house and has a job in the HMT factory, riding a two-wheeler to work each day. One day, the orphanage where she was raised calls her. An old couple has arrived from a North Karnataka village to claim her as their long-lost granddaughter.

Now this is a theme that doesn't just animate popular cinema in India, it forms the matrix for it: the family separated by a calamity and reunited at the end, the pauper who is really a prince, the enemies who are really biological brothers. Whether as the basis of a comedy of errors (think of every single double role film you know), or the underlying theme of the family melodrama from Waqt to Trishul, or even when ostensibly subjected to questioning by the plot -- as in Awara's nature vs. nurture debate, or Yash Chopra's unsuccessful but fascinating Dharamputra, in which a Muslim orphan grows up to be a Hindu fundamentalist, blood ties are assumed to be the ties that bind.

But unlike the hundreds of film orphans we have all grown up on, Nithya does not hanker for a family. She is guarded, unsure if she wants to be co-opted into an identity she has thus far escaped. The orphanage manager's reminder that she was brought in by a fakir, on the other hand, makes the wannabe grandmother baulk: what if she's actually a Muslim? They part company – but on her way back home, Nithya feels bad for the stranded old couple and decides to invite them to stay with her for a while.

A still from Galige (1994)

What Sathyu does is quietly subversive at many levels. By making the young female character financially independent, and the old couple needier than her, he shows how easily existing power equations of age and gender can be reversed. The 'family' becomes something chosen, contingent on mutual desire and supportiveness, rather than a unquestionable given. Within this new space of equivalence, the young woman makes her own decisions, refusing to kowtow to either neighbourly gossip or 'grandparental' interference. She looks out for the old people, and enjoys their companionship, but feels no obligation to live by their rules. The old couple, for their part, learn that their opinions are simply that – their opinions.

Galige's other subplot is even more surprising – the Khalistan movement, and the fate of a reformed terrorist. Girl does meet boy, even in an MS Sathyu film, and Nithya meets hers in a thoroughly charming Antakshari scene on a train. As a girl without a family, she is perfectly comfortable with a boy without a past. And by bringing a Punjabi boy into a relationship with a local girl, of course, Sathyu plays on Bangalore's insider-outsider tensions. In the film, though, the locals' suspicions turn out to have some basis in fact – not all unknown pasts are equally benign.

There are many other moments when the film touches on the question of identity – Nithya's Japanese boss at the HMT factory, the Sikh dhaba owner or the play within the film where Ekalavya's birth becomes the cause of his tragic fate, while Guru Dronacharya shifts all blame onto him: “How can you hold me responsible for your low birth?” In an early aside, the film's resident commentator, one Narhari, asks the rhetorical question: “Do we lack temples, mosques, churches, gurdwara here? Must slap Urban Ceiling on gods – only so many temples per god.” Nithya herself speaks often of not needing to have a religion, of being free to believe in people.

All the threads of Galige don't necessarily come together. The music can feel tacked-on, as can some of the attempts at comedy, and the Punjab segment has the rushed quality of nightmare. The film's uneven tapestry benefits from being woven of low-intensity conversations, like the Bangalore in which it unfolds. In one lovely odd little moment, a drunken Narhari sings a Kannada song by the poet Rajaratnam to a companion in a prison cell: “If you wish to live, escape from this world. Create your own, forget this one.” Words to live by, now more than ever.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 Jul 2020

13 July 2020

The reel life of MS Sathyu - 1

My Mumbai Mirror column for July 12:

In honour of his 90th birthday on July 6, a look back at some of MS Sathyu's notable contributions to Indian cinema: Garm Hava, Bara and Galige

AK Hangal, Balraj Sahni and Farooque Shaikh in MS Sathyu's Garm Hava (1973)

The director Mysore Srinivas Sathyu turned 90 on July 6. We owe to Sathyu what remains Hindi cinema’s most honest, painful appraisal of the early effects of Partition: the 1973 film Garm Hava, which I have written about in a previous instalment of this column. Born in 1930 in the then princely state of Mysore, MS Sathyu graduated from Bangalore’s Central College and moved to Bombay in 1952. There he became associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), staging plays like Aakhri Shama (1969) in collaboration with the poet Kaifi Azmi, with the great Balraj Sahni in the lead as Mirza Ghalib. He entered films as an assistant director on Chetan Anand’s Ladakh-set saga of the Sino-Indian War, Haqeeqat (1964).

Eight years later, Sathyu’s feature debut Garm Hava had him working with Sahni and Azmi again. Azmi and Shama Zaidi (Sathyu’s spouse) crafted a brilliant screenplay, based on an unpublished story by Ismat Chughtai. Set in Agra, the film achieves a fine-grained sense of the everyday ways in which amplifying socio-political divisions push a reasonably well-off Muslim family to misfortune. Sahni delivered an unforgettably moving performance as an ageing shoe-manufacturer adamant not to leave for Pakistan, despite the harsh winds that seem intent upon sweeping him away from home. Garm Hava was Sahni’s last film role, and Farooq Shaikh’s first, as Sahni’s son Sikandar. It is  Sikandar's uncertain future – as an unemployed young man, but also as a young Indian Muslim – that the film ends with.

Sathyu, who lives in Bangalore, hasn’t made many more films. A theatreperson at heart, he has spoken in interviews of being branded a political filmmaker after Garm Hava, and of funding remaining an uphill battle. But two of his other features are currently available to view, both in Kannada with English subtitles. Galige (1994) is playing in the Indian cinema section of an online screening platform, and in honour of Sathyu’s ninetieth birthday, the Bangalore International Centre is screening Bara (1980), free to watch until July 16, with an online conversation with Sathyu scheduled for 5pm today, July 12.

Neither Bara nor Galige have the emotional heft of Garm Hava; it is hard to match either the increasingly prescient texture of that narrative, or the subtlety of the performances by Sahni and Shaikh, as also the fine ensemble cast, including Jalal Agha and Gita Siddharth. But both films offer unusual perspectives on Indian politics and society, in very different styles. Bara (The Arid Earth), adapted from a Kannada story by the great UR Ananthamurthy, is about a young IAS officer called Satisha (Anant Nag) whose attempts to improve conditions in his district are constantly obstructed by bureaucratic and political wrangling.
The idealistic hero was not new, but the corruption was laid out in greater depth than most Indian films in 1980. The chief minister turns out to be conducting a behind-the-scenes battle with a minister from the region, and will not declare the district famine-affected for fear that his rival will take credit for relief. The minister, meanwhile, is in cahoots with a corrupt trader called Gangadharswamy, whose blatantly illegal stocks of grain escape police checks even as small-time traders are jailed for ‘smuggling’ one sack of rice. The most fascinating character is Bhimoji, a local advocate-activist-politician who is Gangadharswamy’s bete noire, as well as being Satisha’s (and our) entry point into the realpolitik that actually governs the place he is supposed to run.

In some respects, Sathyu sanitised the character: removing, for instance, Ananthamurthy’s frank reference to Bhimoji’s pimping before becoming a politician. But the film also gave Bhimoji more complexity than Ananthamurthy’s text (available in a 2016 English translation from Oxford University Press). For example, in both the film and the book, Bhimoji decries Gangadharswamy’s land donations as staged, essentially fake handouts to his own supporters – but the film also depicts Bhimoji’s own ‘counter-occupation’ of the donated land as being staged for local journalists.
Another interesting aspect of the adaptation touches on cow protection or gau-raksha, whose shadow upon our politics has grown much darker in these forty years. In the story, one Govindappa appears nervously at Satisha’s office to ask him to chair a reception committee to welcome his Guru, who is coming to inaugurate a cow shelter that will save cows from the drought. Sathyu makes an interesting shift: he makes Satisha’s father a temple-building gau-raksha votary, someone who gets farmers to send their drought-starved cattle to him instead of to the butcher. In the film, the father brings the gau-rakshak to Satisha’s office. In a perspicacious change that seems to presage today’s religio-politics, this character, Govind Rao, is announced as “an MSc in chemistry from Banaras Hindu University”, and displays no nervousness – he has already printed Satisha’s name on the invitation, without asking him.

Other departures from the text, though, flatten the film. Ananthamurthy gave Satisha an interesting angsty self-reflexivity: his “instinct for adventure” matched by his worldliness in marrying “into a family which shared a deep concern for the country’s poverty though without ever experiencing hardship itself”. Satisha’s wife Rekha, with her mixed religious elite background, her Miranda House-JNU education and her aesthetic-historical appreciation of the town’s ruins, is something of a type. Shorn of these details, she seems even more stilted in the film, though she does propose that her husband dig bore wells. Ananthamurthy’s Satisha is ambivalent about his own ethical display; he “was aware that the couple’s humanism might seem greater than it was through the magnifying lens of the humble local people”. Sathyu’s Satisha, with no such doubting interior, manages to humble himself before a local. Like a hero.

The first of a two-part column.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 July 2020.

An archive of expressions: On Saroj Khan

My Mirror column for July 5:

The late Saroj Khan created a new kind of dancing body on the Hindi film screen, but she also embodied a link to a history of dance – and of cinema. 

(Images courtesy Ahmedabad Mirror, taken by the photographer Dayanita Singh in the early 1990s)

Saroj Khan, who died on Friday aged 71, has been described in obituaries as a “veteran Bollywood choreographer”. That is an identity she certainly owned. But it doesn’t capture the breadth and depth of her connection to the Hindi film industry, or indeed her role in creating the field she dominated for so long.

Born Nirmala Nagpal in 1948, Khan began as a child actor. Her origin story, which she relates in Nidhi Tuli’s superb 2012 Public Service Broadcasting Trust documentary The Saroj Khan Story (free on YouTube), was as filmi as she clearly was herself. As a toddler, she would dance with her own shadow on the wall. The doctor her worried mother consulted had connections with moviedom, and proposed that a dancing child might be a bankable asset. Her parents, Partition migrants from Karachi, needed the money. The screen name Saroj was to avoid social censure.

Tuli’s film is richly layered, tapping into the enchantment of cinema but never losing sight of its trials. Terrific stories compress several registers of film history. My favourite is one in which Saroj and child star Baby Naaz come down from Maganlal Dresswalla’s shop in their infant Radha-Krishna costumes (for the 1953 film Aagosh), and an old couple bow down to them in devotion. Khan takes a childish delight in the memory. But when we watch her sending her grandchildren off to school, their boringly normal childhood contrasts sharply with hers. “We have an age na, where we are not required as a child star, neither grown-up. That was my age at 10, I was lost,” she tells Tuli. For Khan, 10 was an age of decision-making: “Good friends were there, they told me, why don’t you become a group dancer?” Her dancer friend Sheela laughs at how she’d help Saroj escape punishment for her frequent lateness. A schoolgirlish memory, and yet the two little girls putting on makeup under the Filmistan stairs were at work, not at school. At stake was a job, and a family of five with no other income.

What makes Saroj Khan’s narrative powerful, of course, is that her skill and dedication transformed her from the anonymous girl at the edge of the screen to the one directing the performance. Her life also feels like a link to a fast-receding past, as rich as it was messy. Noticing that she was talented enough to pick up the heroine’s moves, the legendary dance director B Sohanlal made her his assistant. If that gloriously open-ended world allowed a 12-year-old group dancer to become assistant to her 43-year-old boss, it also allowed him to ‘marry’ her at 13. Saroj became a mother at 14. She remained Sohanlal’s assistant from 1962 to 1973, having another child with him before finally parting ways, and remarrying in 1975.

In interviews, Khan described vividly how she learnt that she could not just execute Sohanlal’s directions, but compose her own. Half a century has passed, but each word and gesture was a bodily memory. Khan’s talent was acknowledged by everyone from Vyjayanthimala, the great dancing star of the 1950s and ’60s, to the many directors who had seen her in action. Still, there was nothing automatic about her progress up the ranks in an industry in which only men became dance-directors. Her future in the industry was so insecure that during her years with Sohanlal, she did a nursing course and worked at KEM Hospital, learnt typing to be a receptionist at Glaxo, and even “became a make-up man”, as she puts it, inadvertently pointing to another sphere then exclusively male.

It was after years of C-grade films that Khan finally found acclaim, with dance numbers picturised on Sridevi, in films like Mr. India (1987) and Chandni (1989), and on Madhuri Dixit, in a series of films beginning with Tezaab (1988). Famously, the Filmfare Awards instituted an award for choreography, giving the first honour to Saroj Khan for Tezaab. Kangana Ranaut, paying tribute to Saroj Khan’s contribution to that cinematic era, has been quoted as saying: “Back then when you speak about a superstar actress, you meant a dancer actress. You didn’t mean anything else.” Ranaut is right, but what she doesn’t say is that Saroj Khan was part of the transformation that created the dancer actress. Dance had been part of Hindi cinema from the start, but barring a few (largely South Indian) actresses with classical training, the heroine didn't need to dance. The vamp was enough. But watching Helen had been a guilty pleasure, watching Madhuri was increasingly not.

Paromita Vohra, in a brilliant essay in the book tiltpauseshift: Dance Ecologies in India, has argued that ‘Ek Do Teen’ marks a turning point in the history of Hindi film dance because “a clear heroine figure [appeared for the first time] in a dance that is chiefly sexy, and presented sexiness with a robust, bodily series of steps”. Saroj Khan’s visibility – she went on to win eight Filmfare awards and three National awards for choreography – made Hindi film viewers see that “the body of the dancing heroine contained also the body of the choreographer”. “In doing this,” writes Vohra, “she gathered the ghosts of many forgotten worlds of dance – which had found their way into the darkened corners of Bollywood studios as dance teachers, musicians and extras – into her being, bringing these worlds to a professional place again.”

The history of dance in 20th century India was a history of invisibilisation. A national culture 'cleansed' of its links to tawaifs and devadasis demanded the erasure of sexualness from Indian-style dance, at least on screen. Saroj Khan, beginning as the short-haired Westernised dancer, eventually became an archive of sensual Indian dance on screen.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 5 Jul 2020.

Note: Linking here to two of my previous pieces on the history of dance in India: a feature essay on tawaifs and how dance was taken from them -- 'Bring on the Dancing Girls' -- and a review of Anna Morcom's book Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance