“Congratulations on 5th Century score! Hazel-Eyed-Chic-Sleek-Gorgeously glamorous twinkle toed Charmer of the Silver Screen incidentally has finished the 500th film of her career in Dil Daulat Duniya. Perhaps it is a record all over the world for any film artiste.” – Publicity material for the film Dil Daulat Duniya (1972), quoted in James Ivory’s film Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls.
Helen Khan nee Richardson, who came to be simply known as Helen, the H-Bomb of Hindi cinema, was born on July 14, 1938 or 1939. (The year is uncertain since it varies from telling to telling.). Her mother was Marlene, a half-Spanish half-Burmese woman who married a Frenchman. After his death, Marlene married again, a British officer this time whose name Helen took, becoming Helen Richardson.
The family was stationed in Rangoon and when the Axis powers attacked in the Second World War, the Richardsons were stranded. Marlene and her children began the long and murderous walk from Rangoon to Assam. For weeks, Helen told Filmfare in 1964, they trekked alternately through wilderness and ‘hundreds of villages’, surviving on the generosity of people, for they were penniless, with no food and few clothes. Occasionally, they met British soldiers who provided them with transport, found them refuge, “treated our blistered feet and bruised bodies and fed us.” By the time they reached Dibrugarh in Assam, their group had been reduced to half. Some had fallen ill and been left behind, some had died of starvation and disease. Marlene miscarried along the way. The survivors were admitted to the Dibrugarh hospital for treatment. “Mother and I had been virtually reduced to skeletons and my brother’s condition was critical. We spent two months in hospital. When we recovered, we moved to Calcutta.”
From Calcutta (now Kolkata), the family wandered a little, moving to Hyderabad and then Deolali (in northern Maharashtra) before coming to settle in Mumbai in 1947. For a few years she went to school, but then when she was 12 or 13, fate intervened. Her mother played bridge with Cuckoo, a dancer who was already making waves in Hindi film. Cuckoo suggested that Helen might have a career in the studios and encouraged by the cane in her mother’s hand, Helen began to learn to dance with a certain Ratti Bapu who taught her Manipuri dancing.
She was a chorus dancer for years until her first solo dance in K Amarnath’s Alif Laila. Then she came to the notice of a man who would have a lasting impact on her life. Perhaps PN Arora had seen her in Alif Laila; but it is more likely that he spotted her in the Madhubala-Shammi Kapoor starrer Rail ka Dibba (1953), made under his own banner, All India Pictures. Arora produced and directed a series of B-grade films, including the aforementioned Hoor-e-Arab (1955), Neelofar (1957), Khazanchi (1958), Sindbad, Alibaba & Alladin (1965) and the Sadhana-Rajesh Khanna starrer Dil Daulat Duniya (1972), all of which starred Helen, none of which left any particular mark on film history.
It is difficult at this remove to tell exactly what impact Hoor-e-Arab had on Helen’s career. She would have to dance her way through several films until she got to her first hit song-and-dance number in Baarish (1957), Mr John, Baba Khan ya Lala Roshandaan Jo Bhi Dekhe Mera Jalwa Ho Jaaye Qurbaan. After establishing that she is a femme fatale, that she has great power over the men who dance with her – she had only to point at them for them to fall over and wave their legs in the air like so many dying cockroaches – she vanishes from the film.
The basic outline of the Helen figure was born.
But within this outline, Hindi cinema found many uses for Helen. Since she was an outsider in almost every sense – by name, by national origin, by heredity – she could be anyone. And so a million fantasies were pinned on to one single form. She could be an Italian countess (Prince (1969)) or a German one (Ek Se Badhkar Ek (1976)) or an Anglo-Indian gold-digger (Gumnaam (1965)) or a tribal (Baadal) or an aboriginal Maharashtrian Koli fisherwoman (Inkaar (1977)) or a Chinese woman (Howrah Bridge (1958)) or a Roman Catholic Jenny (Imaan Dharam (1977)).
And so it was that a ‘white woman’ (she was perceived to be one at any rate) entered a world dominated by North Indian men who had very definite notions about how women should look and behave onscreen and she managed to redefine those requirements.
For Helen was no ordinary phenomenon, no flash in the pan of male lust. As a dancer, she should have had a short shelf life. Younger women with firmer flesh and deeper cleavages should have usurped her position. It isn’t as if they didn’t try. Without thinking too much, I can name Padma Khanna, Aruna Irani, Komilla Wirk, Jayshree T, Meena T and Bindu. They came, they were seen in hot pants and bikinis and without body stockings, and time conquered them all. But from Shabistan (1951) to Bulundi (1981), Helen was dancing. She was there while the studio mastodons were shivering in their Ice Age as the cold stars rose in the film sky; she was there when the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar dominated the box office; she sashayed through much of the Bachchan era, even if I have argued that he had much to do with the diminution of her persona.
This means that Helen defied the rules of gender. It is a truism that Hindi commercial cinema has no place for the mature woman. Women must either excite the front-benchers with their youth or bring tears to their eyes portraying suffering maternity. Men play by other rules. Jeetendra, for instance, has danced his way through four generations of heroines. Amitabh Bachchan played Raakhee’s younger brother-in-law (Reshma Aur Shera (1971)), then her lover (Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), Jurmaana (1979), Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (1981), Bemisaal (1982)) before turning into her cinematic son (Shakti (1982)). But Helen? She vamped three generations of men, Prithviraj Kapoor (Harishchandra Taramati), Raj Kapoor (Anari (1959)) and Rishi Kapoor (Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan (1977)). That’s a sublime feat of gender reversal, even if by the end of it her admirers wanted to avert their eyes from the ageing coquette.
Could she act? Bollywood does not require naturalistic acting, it needs a certain kind of performance. This allows for everything from Dilip Kumar’s determined attempts to construct a realism out of the unreal elements of Urdu diction and other-worldly elegance to Rajesh Khanna’s deliberate referencing of himself. Somewhere in the middle lay Helen, competently wincing and grimacing when she was called upon to wince and grimace, laying it on thick with her three-syllable ‘darling’s and her coquettish ‘Oh-fo’s, and yet allowing a space for invention, a space in which her male audiences could reconstruct her into a fantasy and her female audiences could identify with her glorious and free feminity.
This is probably the secret of her success as a dancer. There were many who danced and many who could dance as gracefully or who could stay in step as perfectly. Indian classical traditions are strict taskmasters and without knowing it, they have laid the foundation for hundreds of Hindi commercial cinema’s best dancers. Helen did not have much classical training. I found no other references to Ratti Bapu in the three years that I researched my book on Helen. But this probably worked in her favour. She brought no pre-suppositions to her dancing. Her body was an instrument that came to each dance anew and in each dance she entered the idiom as thoroughly as if she had been trained in its nuances. Whether it was the complex footwork of kathak or a freeform re-invented disco, Helen danced them all. She was one of the few dancers who was routinely pitched against the industry’s most talented dancers. She would take on Waheeda Rehman in Baazi (1968) and Vyjayantimala in Prince. Of course, she would lose these on-screen competitions. She was supposed to lose. She was the bad girl, after all. But then Helen managed to break with that tradition too, the one that says bad girls may have all the fun but they die unhappy and alone.
Helen reinvented herself, after her marriage to writer Salim Khan, and became an icon, a grandmother figure in love with life, the kind who could still bring a smile of memory when the old Helen surfaces for a few moments in the middle of her maternal and grand-maternal characters (Akayla (1991) and Mohabbatein (2000), for example).
It is a smile of affection as much as it is a smile of nostalgia. We all loved Helen and we were proved that our love was not misplaced. Growing old gracefully is not something every coquette can do.
Helen managed. Superbly.