Hazel Eyed-Chic-Sleek-gorgeously glamorous twinkle Toed Charmer of the Silver Screen
August 10, 2008 5:58 PM   Subscribe

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 2, 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.

Mehbooba Mehbooba, 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.
posted by bookish (24 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
documentary is sometimes painfully condescending

Yeah, apparently Helen is the downfall of Indian civilization. Sort of like Helen of Troy.
posted by stbalbach at 6:23 PM on August 10, 2008

omg bookish, what a wonderful, fun post! A real treat. Da best!!!

Classic, marvelous Bollywood.

Sitting here roaring with laughter watching Hum Kaale Hain To, from Gumnaam. His hair! It's so Moe with a Hitler moustache. I love him waggling his lungi at 2:48 and then his hair right after.

Lots to enjoy.

Such charmingly Bollywood lyrics in that Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo

My youth was spent in Singapore
My charms are very Shanghai

In Yeh Mehra Dil (my heart is crazy for my lover) Amitabh's aloof act is so hilarious.

That Piya Tu Ab To Aaja is such deliciously awful early 60's kitsch made in 1971.

In 1975 I arrived in India right as Mehbooba Mehbooba (my beloved) was the big hit and Sholay was the year's phenomenal blockbuster (it's the top of the popular Bollywood movies list), played by every bus driver at top decibel, every chai shop owner, relentlessly and that damn song is now ingrained in my braincells.

I adore Bollywood's joie de vivre. I'm gaga for your post. It just gives me huge grins. Thank you.
posted by nickyskye at 7:20 PM on August 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

my dad's generation's "pin up girl"

she's due to have a 'special appearance' role soon
posted by infini at 7:29 PM on August 10, 2008

scratch that link, bad cut and paste, this is the one - playing grandmother in a movie
posted by infini at 7:31 PM on August 10, 2008

Fabulous! *fires up TubeTV*
posted by tellurian at 7:43 PM on August 10, 2008

Just saw Sholay the other night: what a joyfully enjoyable movie.

didn't quite get what all the fuss was about when I saw it back in '95 (I was too into Hollywood back then--didn't think it had anything over T-2, but now--you just can't forget the classic combination of Amitabh and Dharmendra, and the awesomely delicious performance given by Amjad Khan--rumour has it that Javed Akthar and Salim Khan (the writer duo who were responsible for penning the script) didn't approve of Amjad Bhai, since he was new to the industry and didn't have any roles to his credit (major ones at least). But Amjad Sahb proved them wrong by carrying away the movie with his terrific villiany...
posted by hadjiboy at 8:23 PM on August 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Can't link to Youtube from the office right now, but there should be loads of stuff that you can watch of his if you're interested
posted by hadjiboy at 8:25 PM on August 10, 2008

Meant to say what an awesome dancer Helen is. Such sensual and dynamic exuberance! Interesting the different biographies of her say she had an Anglo-Indian father or a French father or a Spanish father.

Her face reminds me a bit of Lulu, who sang To Sir, With Love (great song and movie).

When you look at the loooong list of movies she was in, it's a miracle she's not a gazillionaire. But it seems like she struggled financially. A pity.

On Jabberwock, an excellent Indian culture blog, there are astute comments under the title The face that launched a thousand gyrations, about the political and social aspects of Helen's film roles as part of his book review of Jerry Pinto’s Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb. Sounds like good reading.
posted by nickyskye at 8:42 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid living in India in '75 the big movies in Delhi were Ponga Pundit and Sanyasi
posted by jfrancis at 8:50 PM on August 10, 2008

jfrancis, you were adorable in that photo of you in 1975. I was in Delhi in '75 too, age 21. Were you at school there?
posted by nickyskye at 8:56 PM on August 10, 2008

Fantastic post, thank you. Bollywood has the aspects of pop music I enjoy- the big dance numbers and hummable melodies- but since I don't really understand the lyrics I'm free to enjoy the spectacle without getting hung up on lyrics.

And those hips...wow. Move over, Shakira.
posted by Monsters at 9:37 PM on August 10, 2008

Wow... Gumnaam is a real treasure trove, isn't it?

For anyone who hasn't seen it used in the movie Ghost World, this musical number, Jaan Pehechaan Ho, is loads of fun. I don't think that is Helen dancing, though.
posted by John Smallberries at 9:55 PM on August 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

That was great! The low point of the Merchant/Ivory condescension was that crack about Indians admiring sleek, plump bodies (because they're all starving, don't you know) but still a movie really worth seeing.
posted by CCBC at 12:35 AM on August 11, 2008

nickyskye: Actually, that's _still_ a sampling of Helen's resumé, in that, it doesn't include the _non_ Hindi movies in which she appeared. The 1958 Telugu mytho-fictional film Bhookailas is one such example.

Helen's item-number persona is not interesting merely for its prolificity - everyone associated with movies was prolific in those days, Lata Mangeshkar and Pran, to take two less-glamourous examples - but for a completely different reason (and here's where I thought the Jabberwock article, otherwise well-written, missed the point a trite); the vamp, the clichéd character that was "a contrast to the chaste heroine and, on occasion, a marker of the hero’s descent into vice", no longer exists in Bollywood!

As the Wikipedia article on item-numbers struggled to explain ("These days, there are many exceptions. Even if the lead or supporting actress dances to an upbeat song in the movie, it's sometimes still considered an item number"), and as a copy-pasted article in the comments almost points out, it's a more serious Bollywood generation now - the Indian is phoren Other, the carefully constructed "moral universe" is a Riverdale-clone set in London or New York, and yes, the vamp _is_ the heroine. Bollywood is still racist, but it's much more welcoming; you can be an item-girl even with a conservative, smalltown upbringing. Helen The H-Bomb might have failed in individual plotlines, but she has eventually succeeded, by sacrificing her role just as she did in Bhookailas and becoming one of us.

Also, welcome back! We've been missing you. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 3:04 AM on August 11, 2008 [5 favorites]

wow, what a fantastic post, bookish! i'd never heard of this woman, most of my Bollywood viewing being of the much more recent output. and i've gotta say, i love the 60s-70s aesthetic going on - it's like Bollywood meets the Pink Panther movies! and those sleazy cabaret scenes have it all over the current trend for big, glitzy numbers in London, NYC or Switzerland.

the links in this post & thread should keep the dream alive, from the morning, past the evening, for at least another week or two.

also: yay for the Indiaphile gang!
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:33 AM on August 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

In Yeh Mehra Dil Pyar Ka Diwaana (my heart is crazy for my lover)

Just had to fix that, coz I love the word 'diwaana'. As an aside, I'd be interested to find out sometime how many filmi songs *don't* include either dil, pyar or diwaana in their lyrics. I suspect that most feature all three...
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:57 AM on August 11, 2008

Fantastic post. What I wouldn't give to have good quality recordings of the songs in the old movies. Thanks a lot, bookish
posted by micayetoca at 6:26 AM on August 11, 2008

here is a higher-quality version of Mehbooba Mehbooba. I'd love to hear a higher-quality version of Aa Jaane Ja- despite the weird blackface/cages action in the film- that song is just a lovely little tune. There are a few modern techno-ish versions of Aa Jaane Ja, but they've all got those awful overprocessed vocals.
posted by Monsters at 7:56 AM on August 11, 2008

ubu, as usual I digress, but ref

Just had to fix that, coz I love the word 'diwaana'. As an aside, I'd be interested to find out sometime how many filmi songs *don't* include either dil, pyar or diwaana in their lyrics. I suspect that most feature all three...
posted by UbuRoivas Almost 3 hours ago [+]

my absolute favourite is deewano say yeh mat poocho (lyrics)

*ah, the heart quivers* [youtube]
posted by infini at 8:07 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

nickyskye, thanks for pointing me in the direction of Jabberwock. That review is excellent and the rest of the blog looks top notch.

hadjiboy, I saw Sholay about a month ago and loved it-- the shoot-'em-up scenes, the pastoral village charm, the honor among thieves, and a brilliant cast. Dharmendra and Amitabh are great together; their friendship was, in a way, the great romance of the film.

thecycodian, you've hit the nail on the head, thank you. I'm fascinated by how Bollywood has changed since the days of Helen. So many movies anymore take place in Europe, Australia, or North America; they're not only about NRIs, they're increasingly *for* NRIs, and for the big-city multiplexes rather than the small towns. The stock characters and the mores have changed, and the budgets too.

I'm glad you all liked it, it's my first post.
posted by bookish at 11:50 AM on August 11, 2008

Mehbooba Mehbooba (my beloved) was the big hit and Sholay was the year's phenomenal blockbuster (it's the top of the popular Bollywood movies list), played by every bus driver at top decibel, every chai shop owner, relentlessly and that damn song is now ingrained in my braincells.

ah, I'm sure I've said this at least a lakh times before, but Pardesi Pardesi fits that role for me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:07 PM on August 11, 2008

heh. i was searching for a comment i remembered by the cydonian about films being increasingly made for NRIs, which led me to nickyskye's previous post, which indeed included Pardesi Pardesi again, plenty of great links, and - as a bonus - some vyākaraṇa & diacritic nazism.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:24 PM on August 11, 2008

bookish, Brava on an excellent first post!
posted by nickyskye at 8:01 PM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

excellent first post! Congrats!
posted by Wilder at 5:09 AM on August 12, 2008

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