It's no accident that Saroj Khan's best-known dance choreography came in the Sridevi–Madhuri Dixit era. Indian mainstream cinema was still "Indian", and not "Westernised". This isn't a judgement. It's what it was: the tonality of our films still drew from indigenous theatrical traditions, and a lot of the acting (especially that of the heroines) still drew from the Natyashastra traditions. And so did the dance. The choreographer's job was to create a "movement" or "step" that illustrated and illuminated the lyric. Take one of the most famous pre-Saroj Khan dance sequences, dazzlingly choreographed by "B Sohan Lal (South)", as the credits have it: Hothon mein aisi baat, from Jewel Thief (1967). The key words in the opening line of the song — and I'm not being exact here — are hothon (lips), baat (matter), dabaake (held down), khul jaye (open), duhaai (prayer.)
So when the lyric part of the song begins (see gifs above), Vyjayanthimala's hand brushes past her lips (hothon). When she sings "khul jaye wohi baat to duhaai", her hands make a move as if opening something (khul jaye), rise to her mouth (baat), and then rise further, as though pointing to God (duhaai). This is a gross simplification of the complexity of choreography, but this process was seen even in song sequences that weren't as "dance-y", like Gun guna rahe hain bhanwre (Aradhana, 1969), where it's just the hero and heroine frolicking in the open. In the line "Hai kali yun sharmaye", Rajesh Khanna draws a "veil" across his face with his fingers (the key word is sharmaye, so the choreographer has to signify "shyness"). The dance director was Surya Kumar.
This is the tradition Saroj Khan inherited, and she ran with it. The assumption was that the viewer heard the song while watching its picturisation, and would therefore connect the dots between "words" and "steps". But even if they didn't, even if they were switching the brain off and simply watching the song sequence as something with movement and colour and lovely locations and good-looking people, there'd still be something "entertaining" on screen. Consider one of this choreographer's biggest hits: Kaate nahin kat-te, from Mr. India (1987). You could see the hip-swaying, hand-on-chest "step" as the choreographic equivalent of the line "I love you". Or you could just see a beautiful woman in a blue sari with a hand on her bosom, the expressions on her face (as carefully "choreographed" as her steps) suggesting a thousand erotic possibilities.
These expressions registered in Saroj Khan's choreography because the song sequences weren't cut to shreds by the editors, fearing the attention span of viewers. In that Mr. India number, you sometimes find three/four lines of the song going without a cut, and this creates breathing space not just for the dance movements (you "follow" it, like you'd follow a dance on stage) but also for the actor to emote. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, in the same film, you have Hawa hawai. This is choreography as comedy. A hundred Hindi-cinema dancers, earlier, have used ostrich feathers, but here's the first time we discover the tactile nature of the feather, what it feels like when it brushes against skin. Sridevi's facial contortion is all the "choreography" this moment needs.
As for Madhuri Dixit, the hit parade was endless: from Ek do teen (Tezaab, 1988) to Choli ke peechhe (Khalnayak, 1993) to Tabaah ho gaye (Kalank, 2019). That was the last song Saroj Khan choreographed, and it seems fitting that it was for her muse, the actress she called the best dancer in the world. Just look at Humko aaj kal hai intezaar, from Sailaab (1990), and you'll see what this actress and choreographer could do. The song is set in the regular 4×4 beat, but there are times Saroj Khan goes against this math, making it seem like a three-count beat. (See the steps bunched into units of three moves, in the gif below.) Then, of course, there's Devdas (2002), where this duo gave us both the "I'm talking to you, SRK" intimacy of Maar daala and the all-out public spectacle of Dola re dola.
As Hindi cinema became more Westernised (again, a fact and not a judgement), it became odder to see actors doing the Gun guna rahe hain bhanwre kind of thing. It didn't fit in with the rest of the film, and the Saroj Khan style came to be more suited to songs that took place on a sort of "stage" — in other words, a specifically dance-geared situation rather than a casual song. In Barso re megha (Guru, 2007), the natural splendour of Gujarat is Aishwarya Rai's stage. In Yeh ishq haye, the Jab We Met (2007) number for which Saroj Khan won a National Award, the stage is a mountain range, a.k.a. Kareena Kapoor's newfound freedom. Watch the choreography of the phrase "jannat dikhaye" (the heavens), and you'll see the same raised hand that signified "duhaai" (prayer) in Jewel Thief. But where the latter number looks and feels "formal", Saroj Khan makes Kareena Kapoor look hip and happening and very much in the universe of this "modern" movie, even while holding on to her "older" school of choreography.
This "school" is still around, except that the moves are less "classical", more "fun". (And this is its own kind of challenge, which many of today's choreographers excel in. For instance: Dilliwali Girlfriend, from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, released in 2013.) I've been reading tributes from today's filmmakers after Saroj Khan's passing. Imtiaz Ali said, "We worked together again in Love Aaj Kal. There was one Indian song, a Saroj Khan type of song…" The italics are mine, and that phrase sums up what Saroj Khan represented. She may have made Rajinikanth dance to her tune on a disco floor in the Tamil film, Thai Veedu (1983), but her forte was what Sanjay Leela Bhansali called "old world choreography". He said, "One of my favourite dances in my cinema is in Saawariya with Rani Mukerji." (He's referring to the magnificently choreographed Chaabeela.) "That legacy of Bollywood dancing blossomed in her creative space."
And when today's cinema opened up that space for her, she was matchless. One of my favourite pieces of choreography is the pop-mujra Saroj Khan choreographed for Agent Vinod (2012) with two dancers, Kareena Kapoor and Mariam Zakaria. Compare Dil mera muft ka to a similar dance for a more traditionally mujra-like number, like Khuda huzoor ko from Sawan Ki Ghata (1966) — you'll see similarities as well as updates, a hark back to older Hindi cinema as well as a rooting in the new "Bollywood" dance idiom. Could Saroj Khan pull off a Kar gayi chull from Kapoor & Sons (2017)? I don't know. But she sure could still shake a mean hip, as she proved in the Psycho re number in ABCD: Any Body Can Dance (2012).
As so many recent accounts have told us, Saroj Khan fought to be recognised, and it's due to her efforts that Filmfare introduced a category for best choreography. Look at the credits of Guide (1965), and you'll see why someone needed to speak up. This is a film about a dancer, a film containing some of the most iconic song/dance stretches of Hindi cinema. But while the cinematographer, art director, editors, music composer get their own title cards, the choreographers (Hiralal, Sohanlal) are lumped with the playback singers. Even when I looked up the official video of Dilliwali Girlfriend on YouTube, the description below had the names of the music director, the singers, lyricist, director, cast… But no Ganesh Acharya, whose steps we see on screen. Saroj Khan's visibility, her outspokenness compensated, at least a little, for these lapses. She made many stars, but in her time, she was herself a star.