Ms. Khan was born in that room, the first of six children. She recalled dancing with shadows there as a toddler, fascinated even then by what would become her calling. To supplement the family’s income, her father managed to get her work in Mumbai’s booming film industry as a child actress at the age of 3, under the name Saroj.
She had small roles in a number of films before becoming a background dancer at age 10, appearing in the classic “Howrah Bridge,” starring the actress Madhubala.
Soon afterward, Ms. Khan’s father died suddenly. In a 2012 documentary, “The Saroj Khan Story,” Ms. Khan described how her mother struggled to feed her and her siblings, and how they often went to bed hungry.
On the eve of the Diwali holiday, Ms. Khan worked up the courage to ask the matinee star Shashi Kapoor for help. “I had just finished one song with him, I was the group dancer,” she said. “I went to him and told him, tomorrow is Diwali and I have nothing at home. I will get paid only after a week. He said, ‘I have 200 rupees right now, please take it.’ I’ll never forget it, that money helped me so much.”
Ms. Khan never formally trained as a dancer. Most classical dancers spend years studying under a teacher before they ever perform in public, but with a family to help support, that was not an option for Ms. Khan.
While still a young girl, she became an assistant to the choreographer B. Sohanlal, working with him on some of the biggest films of the time. He taught her the basics of kathak, a classical Indian dance.
“When he started teaching me, I realized that I can’t keep a posture, I don’t know how to do this,” she recalled in the documentary. “He made me work very hard, I had to remain in the same posture for hours at a time, but he turned me into a good dancer.”