In 1990, Mansoor Khan started filming the iconic song, Pehla Nasha, for his sports drama, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, with Saroj Khan as the choreographer. Two days later, she took off for Kodaikanal, leaving everyone clueless about her return. And her young assistant, Farah Khan, who till then, had just been giving claps and making continuity notes, was asked to take over.
There were no signs of nerves, as Farah confidently reached for the baton. She was only embarrassed when everyone, on 'hero' Aamir Khan's instructions, started calling her "Masterji". Masterji was herself getting a lesson in the grammar of filmmaking from Mansoor and cinematographer, Najeeb Khan, who explained to her that 20 and 40 were the widest lenses and as the number went up, the frames get tighter. They taught her about camera left, camera right and how not to jump the axis. All this was handy because the Jatin-Lalit composition, penned by the sexagenarian Majrooh Sultanpuri, was daringly different from the slumberous love songs of the time.
Pehla Nasha was an action packed song, with Aamir waltzing in his bedroom, racing down the hills of Ooty, wandering into is classroom and then sprinting off through tea gardens and forests. The moves were slow but the action was shot in high speed, at 48 frames instead of the usual 24.
The style was borrowed from Mani Rathnam's 1989 film, Geethanjali, whose heroine Girija Shettar had originally signed to play girl-next-door Anjali. She dropped out for a prior commitment and the portions of the song shot with her were reshot with Ayesha Jhulka who replaced her after the first schedule.
Deepak Tijori also stepped in for Milind Soman who was the original choice for Rajput College's cycling champ, Shekhar Malhotra, a role Akshay Kumar had also auditioned for. And Pooja Bedi replaced another model as Devika, the campus femme fatale.
Farah put Pooja on the hood of an old car during the song for a Marilyn Monroe-like shot. A spotboy was sitting on the ground below, operating the storm fan that would blow up the skirt of her red halter dress. "I had told Pooja to hold the dress down but she forgot and it flew high over her head, giving the spotboy a view of her sexy red thongs. He fainted!" Farah laughs.
Pooja's school sequences were shot in Bandra's St. Joseph's Convent while Model School was recreated in a somewhat rundown city municipal school. Pehla Nasha was also picturised across the beautiful locales of the Western Catchment area in the Nilgiris, 20 kilometres from Ooty.
"We'd leave the hotel at 5 am, and after a two-and-a-half hour drive, reach the lake where Aamir Khan, standing on an embankment, arms outstretched, would croon about first love," Farah reminisces almost a quarter of a century later. "In one shot I made him jump off a road sign and it became the poster of the movie. In another I made him stretch out in the tea garden while standing on stools, we threw tea leaves over him. We shot the song over twothree years, with different actors in the same locations."
The memories come flooding in but Farah admits that contrary to popular belief, Pehla Nasha did not establish her as a successful choreographer.
"Yes, it got me 1942-A Love Story and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. But I lost out on a Shekhar Kapoor film because he wasn't impressed. Neither were a lot of other filmmakers who believed I was only good for westernised songs. It took a Dhol bajne laga from Virasat to prove that I could also direct desi naach gaana," she says, remembering that she bagged only one best choreographer award for Pehla Nasha, the newly initiated Sumo Awards, which vanished the following year.
"But I still have my pahla award," she concludes.