“She looked at me, and she just said ‘naach.’ And I nearly fainted. But the rest was history.”
To hear Rujuta Vaidya speak of her first encounter with Saroj Khan is at once intimidating and awe-inspiring. Unlike many of us Bollywood song fanatics who can only dream to learn from the iconic dance instructor, Vaidya was actually given the opportunity to train under her tutelage, as her first non-acting student, for over 10 years, an experience she describes as being “blessed” to have had. Now, Vaidya is one of the premiere Indian choreographers in the U.S, having collaborated with hip hop dancer Fatima Robinson at the Oscars, spearheaded Priyanka Chopra’s latest NFL music video, and toured with the Black Eyed Peas. Yet, regardless of her involvement with the western world of dance, Rujuta is committed to retaining a “desi” quality in her craft, a value she credits to Saroj-ji: “she stays true to her roots, and because of my training with her, I also bring a pure Indian essence to my work.” So as Vaidya launches her Institute of Bollywood Dance and Film this month—a program training students in different aspects of India’s film industry—who better to invite as its first professional guest than her woman who taught her everything she knows?
Delightfully chatty, Saroj Khan generously lent me some time between her New Jersey and New York workshops so that I could pick her brain (and try not to completely geek out inside) on the evolution of Indian choreography, talent in the industry today, and her legendary run as Bollywood’s favorite dancer.
Let’s go from the very beginning: what inspired you to start dancing?
I can’t really say it was inspiration. When I was 3, my mother found me watching my shadow and making gestures with my hands. We were a very orthodox family, with no artists—it was all business. So my mother was shocked and worried when she saw me moving like that. She took me to the doctor and told him that she thought her daughter was a little mentally challenged. The doctor said that I simply liked to dance, and since my family needed money, suggested that my mother put me in the film industry. At that time it was taboo for girls to enter Bollywood, so my mother was hesitant. But the doctor had some contacts, and it just so happened that he knew a director who required a small child in a film. So the doctor gave my name, and that’s how my career started in the film industry.
So you actually started by being in movies. When did choreography start? Do you remember the very first dance you taught?
I was doing the children’s roles but there’s an age where you don’t fit the part of a child or an adult. I was 10 and a half. But by then I had to look after the family. So I started background dancing. My first song was Aaiye Meherban with Madhubala, in Howrah Bridge. If you watch it on YouTube, you’ll find me dancing in a checked shirt like a boy. I was spotted by B. Sohanlal, a dance master from the South who recruited me to become his assistant. At the age of 12, my first assignment was to make Vyjantimala dance for a picture called College Girl. She was appalled that she had to learn from a child. But she eventually became my fan and I became hers. Later on in life we did many pictures together. It was fun just watching her dance. She was too good.
You have been a classic dancer, whereas Bollywood is becoming more "globalized” these days and non-Indian audiences are really responding to its choreography. However, this more international platform also leads to more westernized dances appearing in the Bollywood movies. You are known for retaining an “Indianness" in your choreography. What do you feel about these new developments?
It’s not right, really. Once in a blue moon it’s a club or cabaret dance so the style has to be western. But it need not be hip hop, it need not be salsa. We have our own western style, which Helen used to dance to. Why did people love those back then and not now? Now they are repeating themselves. It’s one dance—all black costumes, with the heroine in the center. Take that dance and put it in another song, what difference does it make?
You have done almost an immeasurable number of dances for Bollywood--how do you keep finding inspiration for unique steps?
People who remember their dances have a tendency to repeat their movements. They’ll remember that a song was a hit because of a particular movement. So they get that urge to do it again. That urge they must kill. Only then will they think of fresh movements. I compose, give the dance to my assistants, and then I forget. If you tell me to dance again, I’ll dance differently on the same music. I can’t speak for anyone else though. I don’t really watch their songs. It’s heartbreaking. You see them going down the gutter these days.
You famously have worked very well with Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit, saying are your favorites to teach. In the new crop of actors of this generation, who may not have training or even acting experience, how do you go about teaching them your more classically-inclined steps? Who do you think shows the most promise as a dancer?
Surprisingly, whoever is coming into the industry now learns dance beforehand, so it’s not that difficult to teach them. I’m doing more with Kareena, Anushka, Katrina...they dance equally well. You can’t call them exceptional. But people don’t give them the traditional songs. They’ve got good figures, so producers imagine them only in naked costumes. It’s not their fault. It’s what they are given.
Bollywood actresses have said that they've been intimidated to work with you, whether it's because of your talent, your style, or your high standards. But how would you describe your teaching method?
I think my style is the easiest because I explain the details. No master does that. They’ll send their assistant and the assistant will teach the girl the steps, but what is the expression? Nobody knows. I teach in detail. I’ll even tell them how to wink. Other masters may just say “okay, wink.” But there are different types. If I want a comedy type of wink or a sly wink, I’ll tell them.
What do you feel is the most important quality for an aspiring dancer to have?
Number one is your hands. What I have noticed here in America from whoever has learned dance, is that their hands are very loose, and they have lazy fingers. Madhuri [Dixit] scores on fingers. Every dance has to be very neat and clean. That’s the main thing for a dancer. And then, expression. Even if the master doesn’t tell you what to do, you can understand Hindi and you know the words—bring your own feeling to the song!
Actresses must do it because it will be appearing onscreen. So they want to do exactly what I have designed. Especially Sridevi; if I gave her an instruction, she’d tell me to do it and would copy it exactly. She’s a comedian, so she collects all my expressions. It started from Hawa Hawaii.
Can you tell me about one particularly memorable choreographing experience?
I think Dola Re was the best in my life, because of the talents of the actresses and because it was pure classical. It was a dream. I’m teaching it in my classes--an edited version, of course!
Finally, with so much experience under your belt, what are your goals for yourself in terms of your dancing and choreographing career, in the next few years? Is there anything left for Saroj Khan to do?
Yes there is—direction! But I feel that if one car of mine is driving well, why should I buy another one? Like they say, chalti gadi mein bonnet nahin kholna.” I want to finish with my choreography, then I will get into direction. I know my age is running out but even if I do one picture, no problem. I’ll just do it with leisure.