Noted choreographer Sajna Najam loves to call her life a magical journey rather than terming it an event full of unexpected twists and turns. For a person who isn’t formally trained in dance, winning the state award for the best choreographer was a major milestone in Sajana’s career. Moreover, the fact that she had won the top award for her first movie makes her achievement quite special. In a candid interview, Sajna opens up to Manorama Online about her career, passion for dance and her interests too.
You have been in the industry for more than two decades. Was it an unexpected twist that a person who is not formally trained became a professional choreographer?
I have always loved to dance. However, I wasn’t interested in training under someone. My family had owned a theater at Chirayankeezhu. As I am the eldest child, my father used to take me there. I would start dancing whenever a song comes in the movie. In the olden days, there was a box shaped cabin in the theaters, specially reserved for the owner and special guests. That cabin was where I would dance. As Chirayinkeezhu is a small countryside, everyone knew each other and those who came to the theater knew that I was the owner’s daughter. So, people would turn back and watch me dance. I would dance enthusiastically when I realize that people are noticing me. I stayed at a hostel during my school days. It was a common thing to make the students, staying at the hostel, join dance programs whenever there weren’t enough participants. So, me and my friends began actively participating in the dance programs at school.
What motivated you to start Zareena School of Dance?
After completing school, I soon got married and flew to Saudi Arabia. I used to watch a lot of Hindi movies on TV. Even today, I am a big fan of Bollywood movies. I would carefully watch the dance steps in the songs and practice them. I was only 17 then. My first daughter was born when I was 19 years old. As she grew up, I began teaching her dance. Dancing with her was my favorite hobby. However, we didn’t have any opportunities to perform outside, in a country like Saudi Arabia. I used to train my daughter’s friends too. After having my second kid, the three of us began dancing together. All these were my basics in dancing. Later, when we returned to Kerala and settled here, I decided to do whatever I like. It was in 2001 that I opened the dance school.
How did you make your entry into the movies from reality shows and stage events?
After opening the dance school, I began getting enquiries for stage shows. I did a mega show at Attukal. I then received invitations from TV channels. That was my first step towards professional choreography. To be honest, it was a magical journey. First I taught my daughter and people loved her performances, and then I started a dance school and got opportunities in TV shows; and finally I did choreography for movies. It indeed is magical.
Your first project was Vikramadityan and won the award for the first movie itself?
Vikramadityan and Manglish were the first movies that I did as a professional choreographer. Both the movies had released at the same time. I won the award for Vikramadityan. I consider myself extremely fortunate for that. I had done choreography for small movies before that.
What was your experience working in Life Is Beautiful which brought you to the front of the camera?
I have been working as a choreographer for the last 18 – 19 years. The opportunity to work in the short film Life is Beautiful came my way during the lockdown period. I really enjoy clicking my pictures and videos. I was a tom boy when I was in school and college. I didn’t dress up like regular girls and was naughty like boys. I didn’t really like clicking pictures then. Later, I began enjoying dressing up and posing for photos and videos as if I regretted not doing it earlier.
I shared lots of pictures and dance videos on the social media during the lockdown. Baijuraj Chekavar, the director of Life is Beautiful messaged me via social media, asking for my number. I thought he wanted me to do choreography. It was only later that I realized that I was offered the role. The filming was at Kuttiyadi. I wasn’t sure whether I could act, but decided to give it a try. So, I had told the director to look for another actor if I couldn’t pull it off. I was worried whether a choreographer like me who has, until then, given instructions could take them from someone. But, after listening to the narration I realized that the character, though small, was significant. That is why I decided to become part of that short film. I went on the sets and acted as per the instructions. I heard that the short film would be exhibited at film festivals before uploading in the Youtube. At least some people who know me would then understand that I act too.
You are related to yesteryear screen icon Prem Nazir. What are your memories of him?
One of my uncles had owned a theater in Chirayinkeezhu that was named after me. I saw Prem Nazir sir when he came for its inauguration. I was five or six years old then. I didn’t know he was such a huge star. I knew him as someone who often visited our house. On the day of the inauguration, I had sat on his lap and we clicked a few pictures too. It was only after I grew up a bit that I realized he was a super star. He is my grandfather’s relative. More than that, my grandfather and father shared an amazing friendship with him. When my grandfather had produced a movie, Prem Nazir’s brother Prem Navaz had acted in it. Prem Nazir sir and my grandfather were in the front of any event that would take place in Chirayinkeezhu. The actor was like a big brother to my father. After growing up, I got a chance to meet him when he came to Chirayinkeezhu for the filming of movie ‘Kayalum Kayarum’. All the artists had stayed in our house as instructed by Prem Nazir. There weren’t any big hotels at Chirayinkeezhu then. So, the artists including the actresses had stayed at our home. During those days, he would always tell my father that I would end up in the field of art. We hardly know anything about our future when we are growing up. But now, when I think about it today, I think his hands may have brushed my head, in benediction. That blessing must be the reason why I have entered the film industry as a choreographer.
Can you share your experiences of working as a choreographer in around 26 movies?
In the initial days of my career, it was alright to work in one or two movies even if you don’t have the membership card. If the producers of the movies that were being shot at Thiruvananthapuram were my father’s friends, they would call me for choreography. As I wasn’t established as a professional, the remuneration too wasn’t that much. During those days, I had taken up projects that were dropped half way thorough by someone else. Most of them were movies that didn’t make an impact. I had only seen those works as an experience. I then got an opportunity to work in Lal Jose’s movie. It was my friendship with Jomon T John and Ann Augustine that paved my way into the movies. After that, I did movies like Manglish and Mili. I did choreography in a few movies of Mammootty. However, I never got the chance to work with Mohanlal. I had also worked in director Lal’s movies.
What is an unforgettable shooting experience?
A movie starring Vijay Sethupathi was the last movie that I did in Tamil. Two years ago, I worked in Cheran sir’s movie too. Meanwhile, Nancy Rani is my latest project. I mostly have positive experiences in my career. However, there is an unforgettable incident that happened while filming a bilingual movie. A wild elephant turned hostile to the shooting crew and came to attack us. We had to jump into the water to save ourselves. I thought I would die. I can only recall that incident with a shudder.
The costume that you are most comfortable in?
I wear sari only on rare occasions. I am someone who wears sari only to click pictures. I am not really comfortable in a sari. To be honest, I cannot even walk properly wearing a sari. I would be conscious whether my midriff gets exposed. So, I mostly wear comfortable outfits that look good on me.
Do you have a special liking for red bindis?
I have been wearing bindis since a long time. I think I look good with the bindi on the forehead. Some people look elegant when they draw their eyes and stick a bindi, right? I feel as if I have received a divine power when I wear one. I feel confident when I do two things. One is when I wear bindis and also when I wear my favorite perfumes. I get angry when someone tells me not to wear bindi. So, I would definitely wear one, especially when someone tells me not to. Besides, I really admire the concept of Lord Shiva. When I wear a red bindi, I feel like I am Goddess Parvati. Sometimes, I think the bindi is like a third eye. So, even if don’t draw kajal in my eyes, I surely love wearing the red round bindi.