That Saroj Khan will not live into her centenary was clear from her demeanour. She looked exhausted and harassed, puffed up in her face with a glassy glint in her eye and somehow communicated a feeling that somewhere the world to which she could have given so much was already full to the brim without needing her talents anymore. Irrelevance is the greatest cause of broken hearts and Saroj Khan died of a broken heart. It is not possible to understand the agony of her irrelevance without also gauging her enormously important talent.Saroj Khan emerged as an independent choreographer only in the 1990’s, the age of the jhankar beats. Before this, she worked through the 1980’s as assistant to star choreographers and choreographed many stars including Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Hema Malini. She lived and worked in post modern India, a India that revelled in the breaking off from roots and emerging into faceless individualism. These were also the years of the beginning of the Babri Masjid politics, the breaking of the monument literally bar binging an iconoclast era.
Bollywood changed as well, not so much in its philosophical discoveries but definitely in its look and feel as a strange etherealise descended upon its form. Amitabh Bachchan would say in some of his interviews of these times that the frames became too fast and the cuts very unexpected. To this tone of Bollywood, Saroj Khan’s style became a misfit. Here is why.Saroj Khan used to teach dance in a television channel which I followed closely. She would use her students as props and once again teach the steps of the very songs she had choreographed. The crux of her movements would use the movement of the limbs and the torso to express through symbols the lyrics of the song while the facial expressions would mimic the feelings. In other words, she made the body of the dancer a site for both the lyrics as well as the melody and the rhythm of the song. The dancer would be made to seem like the actor who carried the song exactly in this way. Saroj Khan used the conventional formula to let the body carry the song.We will get our point across very well if we are to compare her with another contemporary choreographer, the much younger Farah Khan. Farah taught some dance through the television as well. She would use the dancers body to express the beat of the song and hence the dancer bore no resemblance to the song’s lyrics or moods whatsoever. The song and the body were separated in the music composed since the 1990’s. That was considered to be the in thing and resented the new age while Saroj Khan looked an unmistakable retro.
The Saroj Farah tussle represented the inner tussle of Bollywood, which way to go, the mainstream formula with clear moral resolutions or the post modern vagueness with unresolved issues of morality. Saroj Khan thus stuck to the world largely receding, Madhuri Dixit, the last big star or Aishwarya Rai who played Umrao Jaan in the eponymous film or a Bipasha Basu’s Bidi Jalile.. Songs of nostalgic strains. Farah and her school was ascending in the world of alienated individuals mediated through the electronic manipulation of images, the rise of the narcissist rather than the self absorbed persons of Saroj’s mental world. Saroj Khan became irrelevant because of her understanding of the song as having emanated in the body, as a response of the body to the unfolding of the Universe, for that body no longer existed because the responses to the natural world is replaced by a mediated experience through the electronic stimulus of extenuated sound engineering.
Kader Khan, New Year Day 2019Perhaps the only reason why I noticed Kader Khan was because he, and not Salim Javed was the dialogue writer of the movie, Amar Akbar Anthony. This movie by Manmohan Desai changed the destiny of Amitabh Bachchan, for were it not for this movie Amitabh would have been a great star but never the superstar that he rose to become. For me, an Amitabh Bachchan scholar, Kader Khan is important because of his bringing into language the character of Anthony Gonsalves. Before this, Amitabh Bachchan got his distinctive image through films like Zaneer, Deewar and Sholay, often studied as a trilogy of Salim Javed in which a hero was created overnight who broke out of the mould of the conventional wisdom of cinema to extend the horizon in all directions.
Crucial to Amitabh’s dimensions and intensity of appeal was the language in which the image spoke, literate, poetic, reasoned, intonated, loud and sharply articulated loaded with a well-defined philosophy that concerned justice and capitalist relations. Much of the hero’s image sprouted from his speech like the mythical Brihaspati, who speech or vach separated from a state of a mere Being into a state of Becoming and evolving. Salim-Javed’s wrote speeches that dynamized the hero’s image, evolving and transforming him through a recognition and an articulation of his experiences and helping him to organize and then to command the world. Speech was central to the hero who Salim Javed created. Amar Akbar Anthony was a different project for here the hero had to return to earth by getting embedded into its daily rhythms, mundane matters and small talk.
If Salim Javed’s hero had transcended his mundanity, Manmohan Desai’s hero found his home among the familiar everyday social life. If the hero graduated to a higher life in Salim Javed’s projects, he returned to his existential home in Manmohan Desai’s films. Without this return to balance his flight, Amitabh Bachchan could never have been the superstar that he eventually is. Kader Khan was the dialogue writer to have captured the phenomenological spirit within the ordinariness of life. This, to my mind is the genius of this college teacher of Civil Engineering who veered into the world of Bombay cinema.Writing for a character like Anthony Gonsalves could not have been easy. For here, unlike the series of Vijays of Salim Javed, the speech congealed into the persona of the hero instead of articulating a selfhood. Kader Khan’s speech writing was short and curt that embedded the speaker into his environment. Speech acts, like writing is differentiated and Kader Khan’s dialogues seem to have achieved exactly the opposite because these wove the characters together as beads in a set of interconnectedness. They all belonged to a family because they were speaking the same language, had the same goals and were moving together in a roundabout. The camera movement and the music of Amar Akbar Anthony has this roundabout sense, a horse drawn carriage, the roundness of the Easter egg shaped shell, circular staircases, the qawwali and the garlands and the eunuch songs support the circular movement of the ensemble of its dialogues. In Amar Akbar Anthnoy, Amitabh Bachchan and Manmohan Desai found a lasting bond and Kader Khan’s speech helped wax this union.I end looking up who Kader Khan was born as and what he became to step into the Hindi film. I read on the Internet that he was born an Afghan in Kabul, moved to Mumbai, then Bombay read and taught civil engineering. Civil engineering was a front running profession all through the 20th century and attracted the best brains in the country. But by the 1960’s, the profession stagnated, and the better students veered towards Mechanical and Electrical Engineering. The cream of civil engineers then expanded into creative areas, namely novelists, art commentators, film makers and later the urban Naxals in the 1960’s were civil engineers.
Kader Khan must have represented the spill over bright minds from civil engineering. The other interesting thing about Kader Khan was his nationality; originally Afghani and later Canadian. I wonder whether he ever was an Indian citizen. In a sense he forever remained an “outsider” and this may have given him a deep sensibility to the contrarian existential position of what it needed to be an insider. Possible. His being brought up an Afghani, if not a Kabuli helped him in yet another way, a way we are not much aware of and this is the innate instinct of Kabulis at making poetry. Even as early as Babur, wrestlers too were veritable poets, as the Emperor to be mentions in his memoirs, Baburnama. Much of Kader Khan was prolific and not always noticeably brilliant, unlike Salim Javed but his genius lay in his ability to immerse his characters into their milieu and in their togetheredness so that everything stood out together as a coherent work in the film. This was the spirituality of Kader Khan and hence also his genius.