Helen – The Flamboyant Temptress

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Helen restyled the cabaret dance into an art and gave it a respectable place. The fabulous whirls and twists with which she danced in skimpy costumes, Helen oozed extreme sensuality without being either vulgar or obscene. She elevated the standard of sizzling dance numbers performed in nightclubs or as the vamp in many Hindi films. Helen is regarded as an all-time great as a dancer in Hindi films. She also evolved into a character artist over the years. She was a unique dancer and actress who enjoyed the beats, her get up being freaky and weird most of the times, yet she was always parallel with music. It was her charming personality and dedication towards her dance that, while attracting loud whistles, was sensual without being vulgar. This probably was the reason that while actresses came and went, Helen, without doing any major acting roles, became a legend.

Helen Jairag Richardson was born on 21 November 1938 in Yangon, Burma to an Anglo-Indian father and Burmese mother.She has a brother Roger and a sister Jennifer. Their father died during the Second World War. The family trekked to Mumbai in 1943 in order to escape from the Japanese occupation of Burma. Helen was introduced to Hindi films by Cuckoo, herself a well known actor-dancer and a family friend of Helen, helped her find jobs as a chorus dancer in the films like Shabistan and Awara.

Her Anglo-Indian looks suited the image of a cabaret dancer as well as a vamp, but she contributed more than just gyrating on the dance numbers. She was always shown as an Anglo Indian or a Christian to justify her character- a temptress who has broken the norms of society by choosing to dance and drink.

She is best remembered for playing as vamp or a dancer in Hindi movies of the 50s through 60s and 70s. She had her first major hit with her performance in the song “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” in Shakti Samanta’s hit film, Howrah Bridge. She won nomination for the best supporting actress in 1965 for the movie ‘Gumnaam’. She was never a great success in the few films in which she played the heroine or when she played dramatic roles such as the rape victim in Shakti Samanta’s Pagla Kahin Ka (1970), but vamp roles and “item numbers” kept her busy through the 1960s. She shot to fame with her glitzy dance sequences and cabaret numbers. The flamboyance and grace with which she carried these songs, is remarkable.

Her luck took a turn for the worse in the 1970s. Helen fell into financial difficulties. Writer Salim Khan came to her rescue. He helped her get good roles in some of the movies he was co-scripting with Javed Akhtar: Imaam Dharam, Don, Dostana, and the all-time hit Sholay. This led to a demanding role in Mahesh Bhatt’s film Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979), for which she won a Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award. In 1973, “Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls” was released. A 30-minute documentary film from Merchant Ivory films. A book about the movie star Helen was published by Jerry Pinto in 2003. The name of the book is the Life and Times of an H-Bomb.

Even after retiring from the screen a long time back, Helen continued to make few occasional guest appearances in 1999 and 2000. In Mohabbatein, she plays a no non sense Head of a girl’s school who suddenly shakes a leg on the dance floor, much to the surprise and entertainment of the audience. Her special appearance as Salman Khan’s mother in the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, was much appreciated. She continues to surprise and shock, pleasantly of course, audiences across all genres even today. Her journey in the Hindi cinema has been long and fruitful and she has left quite some memorable performances for movie buffs to cherish.
Helen’s life is a subtle phenomenon of transformation of a cabaret dancer to an actor into a legend, the cabaret queen of Hindi films, one of the hottest dancers that Indian cinema has ever produced – Helen.

Avid music lover and Dev Anand fan

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