By Sharada Iyer
At a time when all the heroines are vying with each other to perform ‘item numbers’ in our films, let us take a look at the intriguing, inspiring and incredible journey of Helen, the original ‘Dancing Diva’ of Bollywood, who danced her way into our hearts years before the term ‘item number’ was even coined…
Helen, the original Dancing Diva of Bollywood, occupies a unique position in the history of our film industry. Till date no one has come even close to her where ‘sizzle’ is concerned. In fact, the very mention of her name immediately brings to our mind her lively dance numbers with outstanding music like-‘Piya Tu Ab To Aaja…’, ‘Aaa Jaane Jaan…’, ‘Aao Na Gale Laga Lo Na…’, ‘Yeh Mera Dil Pyar Ka Deewana…’, ‘Oh Haseena Zulfon Waali …’, ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba…’, ‘Mera Naam ChinChin Choo…’, ‘Aaj Ki Raat…’, etc.
Helen danced her way into the hearts of millions with her sensual and graceful moves and such was her hold over the audience that she continued to cast her charismatic and alluring spell for more than three decades. Even when she turned to playing character roles as in Ram Balram, Mohabbatein, Khamoshi-the musical , Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Heroine, etc., one could see that her charisma was intact and that she had not lost touch with her special dancing moves.
THE INSCRUTABLE ‘X-FACTOR’
Helen’s fascinating cinematic journey is embellished with precious and priceless song-and-dance moments. The sheer exuberance, enthusiasm ,energy and spontaneity with which she danced gave her a distinct identity and an instant connection with the audience and her exotic costumes, unusual accessories and remarkable make-up only added to her mystique. Not only were the men enchanted with her attractive face, enticing eyes and pulsating dances, women and children too loved her equally thus giving her an unmatched fan following.
Producers and directors went out of the way to incorporate an enjoyable Helen number irrespective of whether it was integral to the plot or not. A lot of importance was given to the elaborate sets and picturization of her dance sequences. For instance, take the number from Sachhai which starts with her inside a wine bottle and a bevy of chorus dancers atop wine glasses and then Shammi Kapoor joins her and she seduces him with the song– ‘Kabse bhari hai saamne botal sharaab ki, aa peele isme band hai raaten shabab ki…’ The audience loved to see her as her dance numbers were like complete acts which could be enjoyed in isolation from the plot.
Most of her screen life Helen wore striking outfits and her dances were set in a club where she would be seen wooing the males especially the hero, with her seductive dances. This sort of setting allowed her the liberty to experiment with her get-up and Helen took full advantage of it. Slit gowns, mini-skirts, bikini-tops, ostrich-feathers, blonde wigs, strange head-gears, artificial eye-lashes, coloured contact-lenses, sequinned short tops…she carried them all with a flair and élan which still remains unmatched. In an interview in 1973 in the Merchant-Ivory documentary on her titled ‘HELEN,THE QUEEN OF NAUTCH GIRLS’, she has confessed that she did most of her make-up on her own and was personally involved in choosing/ designing her own costumes. In fact, every dress she wore had to be first approved by her. This kind of involvement added to her screen persona and made her even more unique.
Of course! She could also look appealing in a simple outfit as is proved in her dance number ‘Naach ae dil, ga ae dil, hai isi ka naam zindagi…’in Nadaan where she wears simple skirts/tops but dances like a dream or ‘Is duniya mein jeena ho to …’in Gumnaam, where she is wearing a simple dress without any accessories and dancing on the beach.
From Prithviraj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar to Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor, from Raj Kapoor, Feroze Khan, Raj Kumar to Sanjeev Kumar, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, from Mehmood, Pran and Dara Singh to Sunil Dutt, Dharmendra, Rishi Kapoor and even Shah Rukh Khan… none have escaped her magical charm. Imagine! She even managed to seduce the staid old Nazir Hussain in a Geeta Dutt number Tauba tauba… from Passport.
Thus we can see that in a male-dominated industry like ours, she has managed to create history by being around to seduce three generation of Kapoor men –Prithviraj Kapoor (Harishchandra Taramati), Raj Kapoor (Anari),Shammi Kapoor (Teesri Manzil, Pagla Kahin Ka,etc.), Shashi Kapoor (Bombay Talkie, Biradari,etc.,) and Rishi Kapoor (Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan). With the fourth generation Kareena Kapoor she shares screen space in a small role in Heroine.
She always looked vivacious, lively, alluring and very sexy, but never ever vulgar. Yes, she retained her dignity even in those bold costumes and sensuous dancing. So how did she manage this awesome and incredible feat? For starters, Helen was an excellent dancer. She entered the industry at a very young age to display her dancing skills. She learnt Manipuri, Kathak and Bharatnatyam and thanks to her Spanish heredity, she had the inborn grace of a ballet dancer too. She seemed to enjoy her dance movements and the shaking of her hips as much as the viewer. Her beautiful face had a warm and endearing quality about it and during the Black and White era, she also radiated a rare innocence. The fact that the heroines of fifties and sixties were not into dancing also gave her career an added impetus. And finally, her dances were never about just showing off her body for the heck of it, something which the current generation of actresses seem obsessed with.
Starting with bit roles as a background dancer in 1951 in films like Khazana, Shabistan, Rail Ka Dibba, she got her first solo number in Alif Laila, 1953. However her big break came with the foot tapping ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo …’ in the 1958 Shakti Samantha thriller, Howrah Bridge. Though the film boasts of two superb Asha Bhonsle songs picturised on the mesmerizing Madhubala, it is this Geeta Dutt number picturised on Helen which sets our feet dancing even today. The previous year had her dancing to the popular Asha number, ‘Mr John, ya Baba Khan ya Lala Roshan Daan… ‘ in the Dev Anand–Nutan starrer Baarish. In the 1956 release Halaku she had two melodious compositions ‘Dil Ka Na Karna Aitbaar Koyi …’ a Lata solo and the lovely duet ‘Aji Chale Aao…’ sung by Lata and Asha picturised on her and another famous dancer of that era, Minoo Mumtaz.
Though she is remembered today for her captivating and glamorous cabaret numbers, she proved her versatility very early in her career by showing her talent in other dance forms also. Just watch her in songs like ‘Ooi Maa Ooi ma yeh kya ho gaya…’ (Parasmani), ‘1956 1957 1958 1959…’(Anari), Tumko piya dil diya … (Shikari), Dhadka dil jabse… (Bewaqoof), ‘Hoozoore waala jo ho ijaazat …’(Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi),the mujra numbers ‘Tora man bada paapi …’(Ganga Jamuna) and ‘Kasam hai tujhe…’(Noor-Jehan), ‘Rassa Sayung Re…’ (Singapore), ‘Yamma Yamma Yamma,tu parwana main shama...’(China Town), ‘Matwaali aankhon waale…’(Chote Nawab) and ‘ Dil na Kahin lagaana…’ (Ghunghat). In fact in the latter song there are three stanzas and she shows her prowess as a Bengali, a South Indian and a Punjabi girl – all with equal conviction.
Whenever she shared screen space with the top dancing heroines, she not only held her own with aplomb but invariably came off as the better dancer. While Hema Malini could not match up to Helen’s liveliness in the instrumental dance number in Shareef Badmash, Waheeda looked pale and jaded in front of Helen in the song ‘Main haseena naazneena…’ in Baazi and Parveen Babi was completely eclipsed by Helen’s exuberance in ‘Koi aaya aane bhi de…’in Kaala Sona. She did not hesitate to pair up with good dancers and contemporaries like Ragini in ‘Tumko piya dil diya…’ (Shikari), Minoo Mumtaz in ‘Aji chale aao…’ (Halaku), Cuckoo in ‘Lagi dil pe jo thes…’ (Heera Moti), Madhumati in ‘Huzoorewaala jo ho ijaazat…’ (Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi), Laxmi Chhaya in ‘Hamara kaho maano rajajai…’ (Dulhan Ek Raat Ki), etc., but never let them overshadow her.
She even matched steps with the dance maestro Gopi Krishna himself in ‘Dil na kahin lagaana …’ (Ghunghat). Perhaps the only dancer who gave her competition was Vyjayantimala. Both in the 1962 starrer Dr Vidya (‘Aaye haye dilruba…’) and in the 1969 film Prince (‘Muqabla humse na karo…’), they are shown dancing in a competition and the sequences are a pleasure to watch.
She has also given some energetic dance moments with the comedian Mehmood (‘Hum kale hain to kya hua…’, ‘Badkamma Badkamma ekkade boto ra…’) in Gumnaam, and Shatranj respectively, and the genius Kishore Kumar (‘Woh ik nigaah kya mili…’) in Half Ticket. She also shared a special chemistry with Shammi Kapoor as can be seen in ‘O Haseena zulfon waali…’, ‘Aashiq hoon ek mehjabeen ka,log kahe mujhe pagla kahin ka…’, ‘Aiyyayya karoon main kya suku suku…’,etc.
In the solo numbers Helen turned on her dazzling charms effortlessly. ‘Piya Tu ab toh aaja…’ (Caravan), ‘Aaj ki raat…’ (Anamika), ‘Tum abhi kamsin ho..’. (Man Mandir), ‘Ae naujawan hai sab kuch yahan…’ (Apradh), ‘Meri jawaani pyar ko tarse…’ (Upasna), ‘Aaj aaja sanam…’ (Rakhi aur Hathkadi), ‘Aa aa jaane jaan ..’. (Inteqam), ‘Tu mungda main gud ki kali…’ (Inkaar), etc., are some of her very popular numbers.
Helen was also a good actress and tried her hand at being the lead heroine in fifteen films or so in the early part of her career. Unfortunately for her, these films flopped and her career as an actress could not take-off. She did not give up. In later years she turned to small vamp roles and sometimes even good-hearted roles. Even in such roles, she had lovely songs picturised on her like ‘Chod kar tere pyaar ka daaman…’ (Woh Kaun Thi), ‘Hum tere bin jee na sakenge sanam…’ (Thakur Jarnail Singh), ‘Neeli Neeli Ghata O Bheegi Bheegi Hawa…’(Hum Hindustani). She played interesting characters in China Town, Teesri Manzil, The Train, Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, Pagla Kahin Ka, Imaan Dharam, Gumnaam, etc.
Though she was nominated five times, she ultimately won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Lahu Ke Do Rang. For her outstanding contribution to Hindi films, she was honoured with the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 and the coveted Padma Shri in 2009.
She entered the industry at a time when the heroines were presented in a traditional and conservative mould. With tremendous hard work, sincerity and dedication, she not only carved a niche for herself but also ended up creating a record by acting in more than 500 films (including a few Bhojpuri and Tamil also).
She was very lucky that her dancing talent bloomed during the Golden Era of Hindi films, a period when we had the best music directors and lyricists ruling the industry. She was also blessed in getting the golden voices of Asha Bhonsle, Lata Mangeshkar and Geeta Dutt singing for her. All this lent a touch of class even to her most seductive numbers, attaching a great recall value to her dances.
Helen was only three years old when her father was killed in World War II. To escape the Japanese bombing the young Helen along with her mother and younger brother fled Burma in 1942, came to Kolkata as refugees and eventually settled in Mumbai. Perhaps this experience taught her very early in life the valuable lesson of having the will to survive against all odds and to face any obstacles in her path to success.
Looking at her unbelievable journey, it certainly seems that she was indeed destiny’s chosen one! How else could a refugee from Burma, born to a half-Spanish-half Burmese mother and a French father end up becoming an icon and a legend in the Hindi film industry…