Farah Khan: Bollywood’s favourite choreographer
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New Delhi: For a child who grew up idolizing Michael Jackson and wanting to choreograph him once, even as she shuttled between advertising campaigns and being the fourth assistant on new-age, low-budget movies, it is ironic that Farah Khan never really wanted to pursue dance in the long run.
“I never thought of being a full-time choreographer in the movies as a career option for myself,” said the 52-year-old director-choreographer, who celebrates 25 years in the film industry. “I think from around the time that I wanted to be something in life which is when I was 18-19 years old, I wanted to make films. I’d taken part in a world dance championship in 1986 and when they asked us what we wanted to be, I said film director. Because at that time, you think you’ll dance for a few years but it’s not really a career option. Today, of course, it’s a big industry and you can be a choreographer for various things, not just films.”
Khan admits she was “doing nothing career-wise” in 1992, apart from choreographing some ads for directors like Prahlad Kakkar, when then reigning choreographer Saroj Khan walked out of director Mansoor Khan’s young coming-of-age drama Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and the filmmaker asked her to take over. Of course, the youngster had a lineage to speak of—her father Kamran Khan was a Hindi film producer driven to bankruptcy after a film called Aisa Bhi Hota Hai failed at the box office, while her mother, Menaka Irani, was the sister of screenwriter Honey Irani and former child actor Daisy Irani. But it wasn’t really a smooth sailing.
“Today, cinema is a more acceptable career option for girls,” Khan said. “At that time, it was unheard of for a girl to be an assistant director or a DOP (director of photography). Plus there are many more platforms now, there’s Netflix, Amazon, YouTube where you can make and upload short films. You only had mainstream commercial cinema at that time.”
It’s also a better time in terms of logistics. Khan emphasized that movie production has come a long way from the time there were no basic amenities like vanity vans or portable washrooms for women working on the set. Nor did they have monitors to watch the shot or VFX, so if anything went wrong, you just had to reshoot.
“The whole system has changed, you make one movie at a time, actors work on one movie a year, they will finish shooting, promote it, then go on to the next,” she said. “And of course, nobody puts in their own money now. It’s impersonal but also safer. I’ve seen my father put up our house for a film. When such films bomb, you become poor overnight.”
Bollywood’s favourite choreographer climbed the ladder fairly quickly—her work in over a 100 songs in the 1990s and 2000s spanned popular films like 1942: A Love Story, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Virasat, Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Dil Se, Kaho Naa..Pyaar Hai, Dil Chahta Hai, Kal Ho Naa Ho and Dabangg, besides international projects like Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and Bombay Dreams, the last of which won her a Tony Award nomination for best choreographer along with collaborator Anthony van Laast.
“I’ve always maintained that you’d want to go to Farah for a song where the treatment is more important, in terms of a storyline and getting wonderful moments,” said Kal Ho Naa Ho director Nikhil Advani, citing as example a song called Anna mere pyaar ko na tum in Kundan Shah’s romantic comedy Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994).
“Kundan was making a film with a very strong ensemble cast and she uses that very effectively (in the song), involving the entire street of people and creating moments with the firemen. That comes about because, at heart, Farah is a director. Even her first song Pehla nasha (in Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar) was shot in high-speed 48 frames and I think that was the first for India. In my opinion, that is not so much choreography as direction of the song,” Advani said.
But true calling for the successful choreographer came with the release of her directorial debut Main Hoon Na in 2004 produced by and featuring friend Shah Rukh Khan, a mainstream action comedy that brought in box office collections of Rs36 crore, besides dislodging the widely held association that women directors in India so far had with only serious, social subjects.
“I’ve grown up with a certain sensibility and my only concern is my audience should not get bored. Having said that, I don’t think my movies are trashy entertainment, it’s all aesthetically done,” Khan said. “Girls will never be objectified or made to look vulgar. I think that could be because I am a woman and I instinctively get uncomfortable making someone do something that I would myself not do or want my daughters to do.”
Other directorial box office hits like Om Shanti Om (2007) and Happy New Year (2014) followed over the years for Khan who, friends and colleagues say, is the same person on the set, as both choreographer and director.
“She’s no different in either respect,” said choreographer Geeta Kapur, who has worked with Khan since 1996. “Her energy is always very high and she doesn’t give you breathing space. As director, she’s more responsible for everything that goes out whereas as a choreographer, we’re all responsible for just that one song and don’t really carry the film on our backs. So here she’s a little more open to suggestions and hearing us out, par vo sunti sab ki hai, karti apni hai (she hears everyone out but does what she wants to) and you can’t take that away from her.”
Even after turning director, Khan continues to choreograph songs occasionally. She also made her acting debut in a comedy called Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi (2012) co-starring Boman Irani. She is actively involved with television, judging and hosting a bunch of popular reality shows, including Indian Idol, Nach Baliye and India’s Got Talent, a space that she says helps the entire country recognize, like and relate to her as more than just a filmmaker or choreographer.
“It’s only one life and if I feel something is interesting, I’m never going to think about what people will say or if they will laugh. I never care,” said Khan, currently in the process of writing two scripts that she hasn’t finalized the cast for.
“It’s high time I got back on the horse,” she said.