Bollywood, the 1960s and 70s: "For years, the favorite setting for the big dance number has been a cabaret, with its atmosphere of forbidden liquor and sexual permissiveness, with its mixed audience of privileged Indians, industrialists, playboys, princes, and its foreign decadence..."
And no one was more at home this exotic milieu than an Anglo-Burmese refugee who began dancing in films at 13 to support her family. Her pale skin and vaguely foreign looks, along with a collection of colored contacts and wigs, allowed her to play white women, Asian women, whatever titillating role was called for. She was Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls
, part 3
, part 4
The Merchant Ivory documentary is sometimes painfully condescending, but it has some great footage and gives a good primer on the phenomenon of Helen. Although she performed in hundreds of films and was quite famous and well loved, she never had success as a leading lady-- perhaps because she was too foreign or too provocative for Indians at the time to relate to. Mostly retired since the 80s, she still does occasional cameo roles.
A few of her finer moments, courtesy of YouTube:
Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo
, from Howrah Bridge, 1958: The song that made Helen famous.
Hum Kaale Hain To, from Gumnaam
, 1965: A crazy comic/horror number, against glowing-eyed tiki statues and fog machines.
Aa Jane Ja
, from Inteqam, 1969: Helen lusciously taunts men in black-face (one of whom is actually in a cage
) at a nightclub.
Muqabla Humse Na Karo
, from Prince, 1969: "Western" Helen has a spectacular dance-off with a traditional Vyjayanthimala.
Piya Tu Ab To Aaja
, from Caravan, 1971: Classic Helen cabaret. Breathy, drunken, and lovelorn.
, from Sholay, 1975: Gypsy Helen dances for a camp of ragged outlaws.
Yeh Mera Dil
, from Don, 1978: Helen tries to seduce Amitabh Bachchan, who somehow retains his characteristic cool.
Helen on Wikipedia
; rediff.com profile