FRIDAY REVIEW

Helen of Bollywood

The 'Helen song' became, and still is, a signifier.

The 'Helen song' became, and still is, a signifier.  



SURESH KOHLI

Hers was the face that launched over 500 films. Read on to find out about the trials and triumphs of the project.

She was barely 13 when she first danced her way as a chorus girl into the then not-so-bad world of mainstream Hindi cinema, a white woman in a brown world. The film was 'Shabistan'. So from 1952 to 'Bulundi' in1981, during which she succeeded in becoming an icon of sorts, Helen sashayed in nearly 500 films - and doing some cameo roles subsequently before settling down in life as scriptwriter Salim Khan's second wife. Technically, however, her last film as a dancer was Akbar Khan's 'Haadsa' in 1983.Born on July 14, 1938 or 1939, Helen's first solo dance was in K. Amarnath's 'Alif Laila'. But she actually started to redefine 'the grammar of movement for women in Hindi cinema,' 'the shaking hips, the thrusting breasts' when she sang the immortal 'Mera Naam Chin-Chin-Choo' in the Ashok Kumar-Madhubala-starrer 'Howrah Bridge' in 1958. By this time she had appeared as a solo dancer in 65 films. Although she played the leading lady in 15-odd films, despite her bursting sensuality, she failed to make the grade. Bad counselling and wrong choices were factors that might have contributed to her failure. 'By appearing in 22 films in a single year, she was not doing her career any favours. She was overwhelming the demand with the supply.' All these and other facts about this rare cinematic phenomenon appear in 'Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb' by Jerry Pinto (Penguin).

Notion of exotica

'Helen was exotic as all vamps must be, but the Bombay film industry's somewhat uncomplicated notion of exotica was such that Helen could be made to fit any set of circumstances. As an alien with no fixed place of origin (her mother was a half-Spanish, half-Burmese, and her father a Frenchman posted in Burma though she took on her step-father and became Helen Richardson and walked her way to Assam along with other refugees after the Second World War), she could be any kind of foreigner, any outsider.' It is a tribute to her talent and charisma that she literally side-stepped all competition during the period she strutted her stuff to perfection. 'How good a job did Helen make of seduction? A great one for the viewers - her fan base hasn't diminished much in close to 50 years.'And Jerry Pinto has done a great job in recreating the Helen-mystique through a racy narrative, and by seeking to encapsulate 'several myths lying around, myths that slowly began to become the stuff of legend' without having met or known the great seductress of Hindi cinema. In his own words: 'In a way, this book has tried to explain what Helen meant to Hindi cinema and the ways in which three generations of film directors chose to employ what she represented' (without ever looking vulgar or arousing disgust - the way some of the 'item' girls do in Hindi films of today - no matter what costume she sported, or did not).'In most cases, the memory of Helen is the memory of a dance. The 'Helen song' became, and still is, a signifier.' And so is this narrative that has so beautifully succeeded in recreating the life and times of Helen without getting to know her personally. That is, and has been the problem with film stars. They are 'a wall of perfectly civil non-cooperation' in sharing their trials, tribulations as well moments of triumphs and bliss. Had Helen even shared some of her better-forgotten or cherished moments, Pinto surely would have produced a classic





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