OTTplay Logo
settings icon
profile icon

Vaibhavi Merchant on Salman Khan in Tiger 3: I was okay with a one-shot take because I know he's given it all | Exclusive

Choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant reflects on 2023 in an exclusive interview with OTTplay in which she also spoke about choreographing Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in Tiger 3.

Vaibhavi Merchant on Salman Khan in Tiger 3: I was okay with a one-shot take because I know he's given it all | Exclusive
Vaibhavi Merchant/Instagram; Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in a still from Tiger 3

Last Updated: 07.42 PM, Nov 07, 2023


The year 2023 is a memorable one for Vaibhavi Merchant, considering that her choreography has been a topic of discussion throughout. The ace choreographer started the year with a bang with the Besharam Rang song in Shah Rukh Khan's Pathaan, in which she collaborated with Deepika Padukone for the first time. Vaibhavi then became the talk of the town for making Ranveer Singh and Tota Roy Chowdhury dance to Dola Re Dola in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani. She also choreographed a dance sequence with two Shah Rukh Khans in Jawan's Not Ramaiya Vastavaiya, which is a treat to watch. If that's not enough, her latest work, Leke Prabhu Ka Naam from Tiger 3, featuring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, has also made people groove.

Ahead of the release of Tiger 3, OTTplay caught up with Vaibhavi Merchant for an exclusive chat in which she spoke at length about choreographing Salman, the trick behind it, and Katrina's beautiful solo bit in the song. She also spoke about giving different styles to Shah Rukh over the years in iconic songs.


Excerpts below:

How did you work with the musical elements of Leke Prabhu Ka Naam to create a visually captivating dance routine?

I am glad that my director and producer always involve me in the planning. I've had that kind of relationship with (director) Maneesh Sharma since his first film. When we did Band Baaja Baraat, I was also involved in the music, and when we did Jabra Fan together, we hit it off really well. So, he involves me on the music-making stage. This is also the case with Pritam Da; it's a jam session, and we get the hook in place. And then, when we find out where we are shooting the song, we also like to bring in the elements of that particular place. So, I have that connection. It gives me space to create a hook step within a hook step. If you see (in Leke Prabhu Ka Naam), there is a riff that plays out, which is the guitar step, and then they do the shoulder steps. There is also a hook phrase. Sometimes, it's not necessarily that the actors need to dance to the whole phrase or the riff. So, all these creative decisions and elements are taken into consideration. This was also the case with the first Tiger franchise film, with the Swag Se Swagat song, when I worked with Vishal-Sheykhar.

Obviously, the approach and style of working differ from individual to individual. Katrina, Salman, and I are the common factors in all three Tiger franchises. So, we knew that there was a responsibility for us to come up with something that would appeal to everybody—not just a family audience but to people from all walks of life and strata of society. Somebody who's going to Gaiety Galaxy (a single-screen theatre in Mumbai) should enjoy it as much as somebody who's going to a multiplex. I also kept in mind that when Dada (Pritam) came up with a hook phrase, I said, "This is already wonderful." This particular phrase is associated with antakshari, which is very popular in India. So, I think it all fell into place. When you have a combination of Mr. Aditya Chopra as producer, Maneesh Sharma as the director, and Pritam as the music director, and then you have me as a choreographer and a lyricist like Mr. Amitabh Bhattacharya, when such people are getting together, it's a team effort. It's teamwork for Katrina and Salman as well, so with a song like Leke Prabhu Ka Naam, we all automatically got into a zone where we knew what the ask was and what we needed to deliver.

Besharam Rang in Pathaan and Tum Kya Mile in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani were shot in extreme conditions. Was it a smooth ride with Leke Prabhu Ka Naam?

No, nothing was a smooth ride. With Besharam Rang, we were in the midst of strong winds, storms, and rain, all at freezing temperatures. So was Tum Kya Mile, because we were in the snow-capped mountains of Gulmarg. Most of us were falling sick there; even I was unwell. In fact, I had an entire month of viral illness and was on antibiotics. There was the other extreme in Cappadocia (for Leke Prabhu Ka Naam), with an extreme heat of 47–48 degrees. I shot the first song of the schedule in 2021, which was in August or September. When we started, it was pretty warm. Temperatures are pretty warm during the day and slightly pleasant in the evenings in Cappadocia. We shot for Besharam Rang in January 2022, I think. Then this year, in March, I shot Tum Kya Mile. You need a certain amount of mental strength to deal with such extreme weather conditions. Not everybody can withstand and take all that pressure; there's a certain amount of madness. I think all of us involved are obsessed with cinema or have a passion for the job that we do. Even the actors, who have to wear certain kinds of clothes in extreme weather, need a different kind of discipline—mentally, emotionally, physically, and in terms of strength. I think that we are all cut from a very different cloth than people in indoor jobs.

People find it easiest to replicate Salman Khan's dance steps. But you really make him 'dance'. What's your trick?

I don't know how to put it. Obviously, we are all in serious business and we know that at this point in time, whatever you do, you will get both criticism and praise. So, you have to strike a balance between everything; you have to go with your instinct. I don't put a lot of pressure on myself or overthink. I follow my heart and instincts, and he (Salman) understands that when I choreograph, I will choreograph something especially for him. Our actors have to be good at action, they have to be good with emotions and dramas, and they also have to be good dancers. It's very demanding for Indian actors; they need to be all-rounders and jacks of many trades. Now, when you specifically choreograph for, say, a dancer, you know that their forte is dancing. That dancer may or may not be a good actor. Actresses are also branching out into action now, for instance, as Katrina has done in this film (Tiger 3).

First off, in the story concept of choreography in Hindi films, we need to see what the story is, what the screenplay is, what the scenario of the song is, and where the placement of the song is. How does this character emote and perform? And what's the nature or temperament of the song? What are the lyrics of the song? You have to think of everything. We tailor the entire choreography to fit and suit that particular part, the character, the actor, and everything else. Of course, Salman already has a following for how people like to see him and the way he moves, which is his innate style. With Salman, I don't only meet him on set but also otherwise. So we share a camaraderie; there is comfort and ease, and my relationship with him goes back almost three decades. He knows me inside and out, and he knows my temperament on the set. He knows how I like to work and that I come prepared. He knows that I'll come with short division and that I will not ask for more than three or four takes. Such actors know what the drill is. So, sometimes I'm okay with even a one-shot take with Salman because I know that he's given it all.

If I'm choreographing an actor that I've not worked with earlier, like Deepika, for instance, I would read that well in advance so that I could get to know her temperament. I enjoy discovering who my actor is, understanding them as human beings and what their temperament is. I have to be a great hustler to extract the best work out of them. I also have to possess the knack of getting the best work not only from actors but also from my DOP, my production designer, my dancers, and everybody else on the set because I'm responsible as a director for 6-7 days of the song's shoot.

Katrina Kaif has a solo in Leke Prabu Ka Naam, in which she shines. How did you make sure that this song was quite different from your previous collaborations?

A lot of people assumed that she would do belly dancing because the song has an Eastern European influence. But I did not make Katrina do any belly dancing. On the contrary, we did the opposite, with a little bit of Afro. She looks fantastic doing it. She has the personality and the body to do this. She has an aura when she performs and to highlight all of an actor's pluses is my job. Why would I not have Katrina in front of my frame? I want to see her shine in that one moment in the song. And it's fun to watch her because she understands her body and has worked on it. She also finds joy in performing and it is wonderful for the audiences to watch her because you admire her and say, "Wow." It's not every day that you see people break into moves like that and that's the name of the game. When you see a superstar putting herself out there, wearing stunning costumes and the entirety of the frame, the impact is magnified on the big screen. I was very clear; I wanted to give Katrina so many costume changes that we literally ran out of costumes. I really wanted to put in another 10 costumes for this song. This is all part of the design. I need to look at any song as an audience member and not just as a choreographer.

Katrina Kaif in a still from Tiger 3 song Leke Prabhu Ka Naam
Katrina Kaif in a still from Tiger 3 song Leke Prabhu Ka Naam

Do you have any favourite moments or steps from Leke Prabhu Ka Naam that you are particularly proud of?

There is a bit when Salman is wearing a red shirt and he does a tiger prowl. I threw this bit in at the end because the light was beautiful. I said, "Salman, just go and do it." He did an entire parikrama because, of course, we've cut it on the edit table. We can't keep the entire shot, but with all the histrionics that he has done, we also enjoyed watching him perform like that. The crowd was cheering him on in that particular shot, so you see the dancers are focused, of course, but there are times when the dancers were really admiring him in the shot. They also encouraged him. I must give it to the performers and dancers in Turkey. They encouraged both the actors, and the actors had a ball working with them, like the rest of us. They had a different kind of energy and spirit, and they brought that energy into the song.

Salman Khan in a still from Tiger 3 song Leke Prabhu Ka Naam
Salman Khan in a still from Tiger 3 song Leke Prabhu Ka Naam

Having worked with stars for so many years, like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Katrina Kaif, is there a specific no-no from them when it comes to dancing?

I think what I do with them is mostly the same. See, I'm not discovering them outside of their comfort zones. I already know what they are comfortable and uncomfortable with, but still, I must push their comfort zones to a point when I feel, 'Okay, we are extracting something out of it.' For instance, if I had to do Not Ramaiya Vastavaiya from Jawan or the Pathaan song, for me, the Shah Rukh of Don, Devdas, Veer Zaara, or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi are all different because the characters are very different. I have to cater to his character a lot more than I cater to Shah Rukh Khan. For me, that's where it starts. Now, Suri from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi will not do the steps from Not Ramaiya Vastavaiya. When I did Haule Haule with him, there was a certain naivety and innocence, and he, as a character, couldn't dance. For y'all, he is Shah Rukh Khan, but for me, they are my friends. But when I'm working with them, they are characters, so I'm not servicing the star or the actor. I'm servicing the director's vision, the producer's vision, and the character's vision. There are times when I've given a step where I feel that it doesn't suit the character, like Shah Rukh in the Jabra Fan song, which was very different.

It was indeed a treat to watch Shah Rukh Khan as both Vikram Rathore and Azad danced together in Not Ramaiya Vastavaiya...

Thank you so much. It was very tough to shoot; every shot that you saw with the father and son took six hours. They had to do it twice with the bolt camera, and setting up the camera would take two hours, and the actor who's performing it takes an hour. Then switching to the next character takes another two hours.

From Pathaan, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, to Jawan, and now Tiger 3, this has been your year. How do you see 2023 specifically?

I'm just grateful. I look at this year with a lot of gratitude and fulfilment, and I've learned that patience does pay off. I guess all of us work, battling the times that we've seen right from 2020, then 2021, then we opened the market, then we shut the market, and 2022 also wasn't great. This is a great year for the industry because we needed this; all of us needed this and the cycle must continue. There must be growth, there must be progression, and we are turning out to be a great economy in that sense, as the country is growing. I guess that is also a great learning experience and a great understanding of what we were doing wrong, the setbacks, and to listen to the audience's today. What do they want? What are they expecting? Maybe we were overthinking all of it; maybe we just needed to sit back and listen for a change, and I guess that's what we all did.

Get the latest updates in your inbox