Before all the Munnis and Shielas, there was the one and only Helen. A legend in her own right, Helen, the veteran of over 500 films has certainly carved a unique space for herself in the hearts of all cinephiles. Over the years, her unlikely partnership with Asha Bhonsle has given us some of the most memorable numbers in Indian film history which are popular even today.
Besides being one of the most entertaining performers, Helen is credited with bringing about the cabaret or burlesque elements into the Indian film industry. She may not be the first, but she is certainly the most popular and endearing champion of this art form. At a time when leading ladies were bound to work within rigid concepts of Indian moral value systems, Helen, the quintessential outsider with her sino-western looks slipped easily into the role of the vixen or moll with a brilliant dance number to boot. Most of the times, Helen’s item numbers had no relevance whatsoever to the film’s continuity. But she is still remembered for them which is a testament to her on screen charisma. According to film lore, Helen not only choreographed her own dance moves, but she was also actively involved in the design aspects of her outrageous outfits as well as the styling of her looks. And this was what would set her apart from all the other item girls to come. Some of the classic Helen looks were the blonde bouffant wigs, fantastic feather head gears, dramatic cat’s eye-makeup, coloured contact lenses and sheer bodysuits covered with rhinestones.
As an immigrant during the Second World War, Helen’s own life has been akin to a melodramatic film story. Family constraints compelled her to leave studies and join films as a chorus dancer. Her big break came in 1958 in the most unassuming of ways. The film was Howrah Bridge starring the ethereal Madhubala and Ashok Kumar. Director Shakti Samantha had captured the actress in her seductive best in the song “Aaiye Meherbaan”. But music director O.P. Nayyar had composed another peppy number “Mera Naam chin Chin Choo” and Helen, a moderately known dancer was chosen to be the danseuse. The nimble footed, fully clothed Helen more than matched up to the gusty vocals of Geeta Dutt, and India’s dancing girl had arrived.
The Asha-Helen combo started with the 1966 release Teesri Manzil, a Naseer Hussain production with music from a brand new composer, R.D. Burman. Few minutes into the film and audiences were witness to an electrifying number “O Haseena Zulfowali”. The white stage set was the perfect backdrop for a colourfully dressed Helen, and matching her step to step was no other than Shammi Kapoor. Now you can’t get more flamboyant than that!
By 1971, Helen had mastered the art of cabaret to such an extent that she created a dance form that was uniquely Helen, which no actress has been able to copy till date. “Piya Tu” was the number, and a stocking clad Helen heaved and writhed on the stage, and the Indian audience couldn’t get enough of this beauty with the come hither eyes.
By the 70’s, Helen’s reign as the undisputed dancing queen was ending. The new breed of heroines, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi were certainly no shrinking violets. Longtime friend and later husband Salim Khan roped her in for “Mehbooba Mehbooba” for which we are all thankful. Wearing a gypsy inspired outfit, Helen gyrated her way into one of the top ten Indian films of all time – Sholay.
During the last leg of her career, Helen decided to push the envelope so to say. Instead of a western dance number, the audience saw the dancing queen in an Indian avatar. Wearing a nauvari sari, Helen crooned to “Mungda Main Gud Ki Dali” in the 1978 release Inkaar. The film may not be fresh in the public memory, but Helen’s number certainly is.
“Ye Mera Dil” is seen by many as Helen’s swan song. Cabarets’ were no longer part of the Indian film scene and vamp roles were hard to come by. Again scriptwriter Salim Khan came to her rescue by pitching her against rising star Amitabh Bachchan in Don (1978). Helen’s screen time was all of 10 minutes, but within those scant minutes she burned her way into the psyche of the Indian audience. Years later, a Kapoor scion tried to recreate the same magic but didn’t get far. Like they say, you shouldn’t tamper with something that’s perfect.