Helen birthday special: The actor who danced her way into our collective cinematic consciousness

After her marriage to Salim, Helen had no desire for the limelight and I could never interview her. But, my wife Anita was determined to have her speak for her food column. I mentioned this casually to my friend Sadhana, a contemporary of Helen, and she called back in an hour to say, “Helen has agreed to do the interview.” Anita was charmed by Helen’s equanimity and poise on the phone.

As a teenager, I always got an extra thrill when the film credits rolled — firstly, if the film was more than 18-reels long and secondly if ‘and Helen’ flashed on screen. As the actress turns 81 this November 21, I treated myself to another viewing of one of my favourite Helen dance numbers — Gham chhodke manao rangreli arrey, maan lo jo kahe Kitty Kelly — from N N Sippy’s 1965 whodunit Gumnaam in which she prances like a water nymph on a Goa beach in an azure swimsuit. Sultry looks, stunning figure, Terpischorean skills and sheer screen presence — Helen had it all.

She was the Cabaret Cutie as well as the Queen Of Mean for a good 20 years. From Chin chin choo in the 50s to Mungda in the 70s, Helen danced and vamped her way into our collective cinematic consciousness as the seductive embodiment of sugar, spice and vice.

Helen’s brought the sophistication of a Parisienne Folies Bergere show to our dazzled desi minds... and it was fuelled largely by her own talent. And those costumes! Renowned costume designer Mani Rabadi once told me with a chuckle, “We didn’t have access to foreign accessories those day so I would make Helen’s trademark boa feather from chicken feathers!”

Whether it was Piya tu ab toh aaja, Aa jaane jaa or O haseena zulphowali, when Helen took centrestage, you knew it was time to sit on the edge of your seat — her dance portended danger and ended in an explosive situation.

When she was not the dancing queen, Helen was the romantic bandit — constantly trying to pry the hero away from the heroine (Teesri Manzil, Mere Jeevan Saathi, Preetam). Unfortunately, she often ended up with a dagger, that she was in all probability carrying in her vanity bag, in her back.

But for the all-too-brief time that Helen was on screen, she looked like a vision and danced like a dream. Her zingy air of sophistication was often used as a counterpoint to the Indianised appeal of the heroine in Caravan, a cowering Asha Parekh sits meekly on a table while Helen fills the screen with the rip-roaring Piya tu ab toh aaja.

Though she performed sensuous cabarets, Helen was blessed with an extraordinary grace that she never looked vulgar. And underhand though her characters were required to be at times, Helen always had that innate charm and joie de vivre that you could not help but be dazzled by.

It spilled off screen too. When I was interviewing Babita Kapoor once, she shared an interesting anecdote about a dance off with Helen from Dus Lakh (1966). The two were required to compete in dancing to the song Baje mori payal. Realising that it was a tough challenge to dance opposite Helen, Babita took refuge in her makeup room and began crying silently. Till Helen went across to Babita and reassured her that she would do her best to help her, if needed.

Recently, everyone from Kareena Kapoor (Yeh mera dil in Don) to Sonakshi Sinha (Mungda in Total Dhamaal) have shaken a leg and wriggled a hip to popular Helen numbers; but they only succeeded in underlining that nobody can play Helen today.

(Dinesh Raheja is an Indian author, columnist, TV scriptwriter and film historian. In 2017 he initiated The Dinesh Raheja Workshop in which he teaches Bollywood aspirants everything related to the media.)

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