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All hail India’s nautch queen

An archetype unto herself, Helen, the quintessential nautch girl of Hindi cinema, charmingly pouted and pranced her way through countless films. Her work in the movies, some dated to the early 1950s, now occupy a posterity that seemingly stretches to eternity. In an industry in which rampant typecasting was de rigueur, the Helen persona — trapped in the gilded cage of tormented glamour — persisted for three odd decades of an uninterrupted stint that out-lapped many of her contemporaries. Her film appearances were often restricted to sassy production numbers (the original ‘items’) and fleeting cameos but her admirers are legion. To put her career in perspective, next year will mark 60 years since Helen's breakout appearance in Howrah Bridge (1958), dancing to the tune of ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu’.

All hail India’s nautch queen
 

Archive of our own

The digital revolution and the profuse archiving and sharing it spawned, has unearthed large tracts of her not insubstantial ‘oeuvre’. My own personal, and compulsively acquired, collection of Helen songs now stands at a colossal 500. It’s an arbitrary round figure at which I stopped this incorrigible pursuit of guilty pleasures, although at only three quarters through her IMDB credits, there were leads for many more numbers. Digital media is relatively inexpensive when compared to antediluvian 45 RPM records, signed first editions, Zippo lighters, and the other prized collectibles of our time. The floodgates opened when HMV, once synonymous with film music, made its catalogue publicly available. Clues were thrown up by dedicated bloggers who assiduously discuss vintage cinema. Jerry Pinto’s tome (The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, 2006) was a godsend. The website, Hindi Geetmala, lists almost every Hindi film song ever, and each one that promised to be one of Helen’s could be corroborated against grainy YouTube videos, first-person accounts of cinema outings, or even an artefact of silver screen memorabilia (from the Osian archives). Combining all these strands involved no mean excavation. In the end, it became a resource that allows us a unique, if somewhat whimsical, perspective into the career of a phenom.

All hail India’s nautch queen

In Kasturi (1954), an impossibly young Helen, in only her second solo, appeared sans make-up and unsure about lip-sync. Befittingly, she was ‘backed’ by a 40s-era voice (Binota Chakraborty) in a soundtrack that was maestro Anil Biswas’ swan song. By 1955, Helen already had a dozen numbers to her credit, including the snazzy Goan sequence from the Telugu film, Santhosham (1955). That film was remade in Hindi as Naya Aadmi (1956), and Helen’s expressions lent themselves perfectly to cultural coding appropriate to both versions. Her assured delivery in dance duets with mentor Cuckoo Moray in films like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1957) and Yahudi (1958) signalled the passing of the baton, from Moray’s adroit sensuousness to Helen’s freestyle impishness. As work in Hindi burgeoned, Helen also made her debut in several regional languages. In Ghunghat (1960), the variety entertainment song, ‘Dil Na Kahin Lagana’, saw her take on Punjabi, Bengali and Tamil guises with versatile ease, ostensibly made-over completely as a pan-Indian paragon with costume changes effected in seconds.

East meets West

All hail India’s nautch queen

This Indianised allure and a chastely accented Hindi allowed her to pass off as leading lady in more than a dozen films by the mid-1960s;mostly B-movies with the likes of Dara Singh and Ajit. But it would remain at loggerheads with Helen’s parallel identity — a cross between a vaudevillian chorus girl in spangles and a Japanese geisha with bangs. It was a colonial-era persona with post-colonial chutzpah. Her Western looks pandered to that persistent and aspirational hankering for all things 'fair and lovely’ (read, white). Her turf became the increasingly racially charged milieu in which she brought savages to heel in films Night in London (1967), Intaqam (1969), or Preetam (1971), which led to even more hedonism and exploitation by the late 1970s in obscure cinema. The soft-spoken sari-clad ingenue of Hum Hindustani (1960) was soon left behind. Trade distributors imposed the pre-requisite of the ubiquitous Helen cabaret that did not allow this Amazonian woman breathing space as an actress with histrionic range.

All hail India’s nautch queen

A spot of number-crunching (taking my 500 songs as sample) throws up some revealing insights, and some expected ones. Asha Bhosle, who was able to work the Helen persona into her own repertoire so seamlessly, accounts for more than half of these songs, including the very first (‘Raatein Pyar Ki’ in 1953’s Alif Laila). The ebullience and joy that she invested into a Helen number is now part of movie folklore. Contrary to popular belief, Lata Mangeshkar has around 70 Helen numbers to her credit, more than what she may have sung for most other actresses, given the smaller shelf-life of leading ladies. These include Helen in her crossover ‘heroine’ (and thus necessarily sanitised) phase in films like Kabli Khan, Sunehri Nagin and Been ka Jadoo (all 1963). But there are several bonafide cabaret numbers that are not wanting in oomph or pizzazz but still no match for Asha’s peerlessness. But perhaps the most underrated contributions are Geeta Dutt’s 30-odd numbers that populated the smoky jazz bars of black and white cinema in which live musicians serenaded Helen and her scrawny page-boys and swishy backup girls.

Personal soundtracks

All hail India’s nautch queen

Naushad’s sole offering for Helen was the delectably choreographed mujra, ‘Tora Man Bada Paapi’, from Ganga Jamuna (1961), full of the early grace that gave way to the chest-heaving and hip-swaying that later dance masters inserted into her arsenal. As far as composers go, Shankar-Jaikishan have been the most prolific followed by Rahul Dev Burman, Kalyanji Anandji, Laxmikant Pyarelal and O.P. Nayyar. Among lyricists, Majrooh Sultanpuri has written the most Helen songs while Gulzar has none. Burman, who gave the Asha-Helen pair some of their very best numbers, included two Lata-Helen songs in his very first outing, Chhote Nawab (1962), including the Flamenco-inflected ‘Matwali Aankhon Wale’, in which Helen woos a dapper Mehmood with castanets.

Mehmood and Johnny Walker were her comic love interests in many films. In the gangster’s den, her clandestine expressions added intrigue to noir-like settings, as she seduced good men into a lair of deceit but also arranged their getaway. Shammi Kapoor and Biswajit were the leading men who appeared most frequently alongside her, even though they were as likely to thwart her affection.

All hail India’s nautch queen

Elsewhere, Helen became the friendly if coquettish counterpoint to the straight-laced leading ladies of her time. Her dance-offs with Vyjayanthimala (Dr. Vidya, 1962; Prince,1969), Waheeda Rehman (Baazi, 1951) or Babita (Dus Lakh, 1966) assumed a Western-versus-Indian binary. But she also challenged their conservatism and facile sense of honour. Other ‘bad ladies’ like Shashikala, Bindu or Lalita Pawar could never transcend the diabolism ascribed to them, but Helen’s brand of sang-froid saw her escape unscathed from even the most underhanded of enterprises. It must be said that Helen has always appeared to revel in her ‘otherness’. As Suzy, or Lily, or any other silk-stockinged alter-ego, she was always the bad girl who transgressed, smoked, drank with abandon. She did all this while wearing the most exuberantly mounted costumes you’d want to dive straight into, if only to escape into a world where anything goes, where being different is good, and you’d even take a bullet in your heart for that.


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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 7:44:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/all-hail-indias-nautch-queen/article19813806.ece

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