There was a time in Bollywood when crazed fans would wait for hours to buy a ticket, not to see the hero or heroine of the movie – but to see the vamp! And she was not just any vamp. One five-minute cabaret number by her was enough to guarantee a movie’s success.
When ‘Caravan’ was released in 1970 with an Adults only rating, I was too young to be allowed into the theater. I had to wait fourteen long years for Caravan to be re-run in 1984, at Rupam Talkies, Sion. And fourteen years later, I still couldn’t enter the theater, because of the huge crowd! I paid the princely sum of Rs 20/- for a black ticket, just to see her famous cabaret number, ‘Monica, o my darling‘. And boy, she was worth waiting fourteen years for.
Such was the allure of Helen Jairaj Richardson. She was sensuous without being sleazy, voluptuous without being vulgar, erotic but not obscene, and she brought grace to a much-maligned dance form in Indian cinema, the cabaret.
Born to an Anglo-Indian father and a Burmese mother, Helen’s family migrated to Bombay in the early 1940’s to escape World War 2. At the young age of 13, she was obliged to drop out of school and look for work. Helen was trained in Kathak and so her friend Cuckoo took charge of her career and got her a job as a chorus dancer.
Helen made her debut in 1951, at an age when other girls were still playing with dolls. She appeared in several songs as a chorus dancer, and did some dance numbers with her friend and mentor Cuckoo. Helen got her big solo break in Howrah Bridge in 1957, with the mega-hit item number, ‘Mera naam Chinchin choo‘.
After that, Helen did not look back, as she rapidly became the top dancer of her time. Her dancing skills were not restricted to skimpy cabaret numbers alone. She shone in classical dance numbers too, as in ‘Tora man bada paapi’, from the movie Ganga Jumna.
It was an era of rigid social mores in India, as the country still had a strong hangover from the British Raj. The heroine in Indian cinema was typically portrayed as a Bharatiya naari, a nice and homely type, who would be happy to cook and wash clothes and wait patiently for her hero to come home. The heroine would never do anything ‘bad’ like smoking, drinking, driving a car, wearing T-shirts and trousers (although ultra-tight salwars and wet sarees were allowed), or worst of all, dancing in public with other men. That was the role of the vamp.
Helen’s westernised looks made her an automatic choice for these roles, since only ‘western’ women were like ‘that’. Unfortunately, Helen got typecast in these roles. She usually was the ‘other’ woman in many movies of the sixties and seventies, the dancing vamp with the golden heart and an Anglo name like Monica or Susie, who’s madly in love with the hero, but gets rejected by him since she is not a ‘Hindustani’ ladki, and she conveniently dies at the climax of the movie so that the hero and heroine can live happily ever after.
Even so, Helen could steal the show from the lead heroine, as she did in films like Teesri Manzil, Woh kaun thi, Caravan, Gumnaam, Mere Jeevan Sathi, and Inkaar (in which her single item number ‘Mungla, mungla‘ made the movie a silver jubilee hit).
Helen is not only the best item girl ever, but she has had the longest career as well. She began at the age of 13 and when she finally retired as a cabaret artiste she was close to her fiftieth birthday. Her sizzling cabaret numbers in Sholay (1975), Inkaar (1978) and Don (1978) were all performed when she was in her late thirties and early forties.
I’d say her best cabaret number was ‘Yeh mera dil‘ in Don. Helen was forty at the time, and still set the screen on fire. In comparison, Kareena Kapoor’s remixed version of the same number in SRK’s 2006 remake of Don was anemic.
After an incredible thirty year career, Helen finally retired as a dance artiste in 1984, but then went on to shine in character roles in modern films like Khamoshi and Mohabbatein.
Merchant-Ivory made a long documentary called “Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls”, and film journalist Jerry Pinto wrote an award winning book on her life, “Helen -The life and times of an H-bomb”.
Here’s to Helen!
Cheers … Srini.