When Mira Nair planned a brief harem dance sequence in her film Vanity Fair, she went to Bollywood and contacted Farah Khan -- the industry's top and perhaps the most creative choreographer. Nair and Khan had collaborated once before for Monsoon Wedding, but that film was set in contemporary India. William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair was set in the 1800s, during England's Victorian era.
It was a challenge for Khan -- getting western dancers to do desi Bollywood moves and to incorporate Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at that time, into the dance. Witherspoon later recalled that some of the steps were hard, but she had great fun.
"I said to Mira, 'What do you want me to do?'" Witherspoon narrated to reporters at the Vanity Fair press conference. "She said, 'That's what you are going to do.' And I am like, 'Mira, how am I going to do that?' And she said 'Darling, you are going to do it and I know you will look fabulous.'"
The two minute sequence towards the middle of the film has Witherspoon's Becky Sharp performing the scandalous harem dance, with a set of back-up dancers, to Egyptian pop star Hakim's song El Salaam, with editing cuts that show all the key players in the film reacting to the show. While the sequence is a collaborative effort -- camerawork by Declan Quinn, quick edited shots by Allyson Johnson, costumes by Manish Malhotra, and some sharp acting -- it was Khan's moves that make it one of the sexiest dances ever filmed on screen.
In Bollywood, Khan is best known for her Chaiyya Chaiyya choreography for Mani Ratnam's Dil Se -- a very original piece that continues to pull desis to the dance floors in India and elsewhere. Like all good cinema and musical numbers, the Chaiyya Chaiyya sequence was also a collaborative effort -- Ratnam's vision, Santosh Sivan's camerawork, Gulzar's lyrics, Sukhwinder Singh's and Sapna Awasthi's voice, and A R Rahman's genius music. But the sequence would not have worked had it not been for Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora shaking their hips, arms and the rest of their bodies to Khan's sensual choreography.
Khan has choreographed some amazing dance sequences for Bollywood -- from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil to Pagal Hai, Duplicate to Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. And her talent has been noticed beyond the borders of Bollywood. She choreographed for Peter Chan's Chinese film Ru guo Ai and for Andrew Lloyd Webber's fabulous West End and Broadway production -- Bombay Dreams. The show -- a rags to riches story of a boy from Mumbai slums, who ultimately becomes a huge Bollywood star -- included a set of top Bollywood song-dance sequences from the 1990s (all composed by AR Rahman): Chaiyya Chaiyya, Rang De and the grand Shakalaka Baby, with actual fountains on the stage.
"Farah choreographs 10-second or 15-second shots for cinema," Anthony Van Laast, the lead choreographer of Bombay Dreams told me a few years ago. Laast's other stage projects have included Mama Mia! Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat -- the last two produced and conceived by Webber. For Bombay Dreams Laast travelled to Mumbai to work with Khan and her dancers.
"She is a master at using the edit to tell the audience what to watch," Laast added. "She will edit the eyes moving, or the hips moving, and then she will edit to the big group. What Farah did was to introduce me to all these steps and I was able take them and I became the editor for the stage to show the continuous dance form."
If Khan was such an expert of short shots for the camera and had a sense of editing in her mind while she was choreographing, it was only a matter of time that she was going to move to film direction. And so Main Hoon Na was not a big surprise to viewers. Khan's debut film starred her friend Shah Rukh playing the role of an army officer who is assigned on a clandestine mission to a college in Darjeeling. Main Hoon Na opens and ends with two dramatic action sequences, but the middle of it is pure, unadulterated and delightful Bollywood entertainment.
With a cast of young actors -- including Zayed Khan and Amrita Rao -- and Shah Rukh as the older "student," Main Hoon Na is Bollywood at its best. Here Khan pays attention to all the details -- comedy, action, melodrama, costumes, songs (Javed Akhtar's lyrics and Anu Malik's music), and the real fun and playful choreography.
I saw Main Hoon Na a few months after I had heard its soundtrack and it was a sheer joy to watch each song played out by the stars. The movie and the songs continue to thrill me. Especially entertaining to watch are the opening song, with the entire college cast out dancing, while also playfully progressing the film's story line; Tumhe Jo Maine Dekha, with Sushmita Sen in a beautiful array of saris, and very surrealist backdrops; and finally the qawwali -- Tumse Milke Dil Ka Jo Haal, with its coluor schemes, bright garish costumes, and the very pop/plastic look. Main Hoon Na proved beyond doubt that Khan is a Bollywood icon and talent like hers is what makes the commercial Hindi industry so watchable.
As most Bollywood fans would know, Khan's second film Om Shanti Om is opening in theaters this Diwali day. The promos and the song clips give us a feel that it will be more of what we saw in Main Hoon Na -- romance, comedy, music and dance. There will be Shah Rukh (a small-time movie actor in love with a huge star) in garish costumes and very 'seventies hairdo, in contrast to his buffed up and bare-chested, modern day image when he dances to Dard-E-Disco.
And there appears to be a lot more to Om Shanti Om -- a play on one of old Bollywood's popular theme of rebirth and eternal love, with 31 movie stars in the title song sequence and digital imaging of Deepika Padukone with actors from yesteryear.
I hope Om Shanti Om is as much as its promos make it out to be. But this much is sure. It took Khan a long time to reach where she is today. Her talent will continue to explode and surprise us.