Heterogeneity is a popular format of containing the filmic audiences of India, who might have differing preferences or stances over stardom — and these preferences are typically influenced by linguistic, cultural, religious, and political factors. Only a few stars within the pantheon of Indian cinema have been able to transcend these differences and become everyman’s favourite: names like Ashok Kumar, Gemini Ganesan, Amitabh Bachchan, Meena Kumari, Rajinikanth, Vyjayanthimala, etc. represent a recognisable, self–contained identity which bears no geopolitical affinity to a singular community, but is rather enjoyed by Indians across states. One similarity between these names is their consumption as lead actors of cinema, which is where the problem of situating supporting actors — within this worshipped pantheon — arises. It divulges to exhume the politics of remembrance, and not many supporting characters regularly feature in this celebrated pantheon; and those who feature are predominantly men. Against this dramatic chaos of gender and star politics, India witnessed the birth of a phenomenon which charred the otherwise stereotyped idea of popular stardom, and established the foreground for the celebration of the nautch girl. The phenomenon was called Helen: an Anglo–Burmese immigrant, with a refugee status, due to become one of India’s most iconoclastic, most glamourous dancers . . . of all times.
Helen superseded her past and her present; and it happened so smoothly that it resembles a dream. With the explosive popularity of ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo’ (1958), Helen not only became a household name, but also obliviated everyone behind and after her. There was no turning back after 1958, as it not only strengthened Helen’s footing into the giant entertainment/film industry, but also her popularity implied the decline of older talents, like Madame Azurie and Cuckoo Moray, and the anxieties of contemporary talents, like Madhumati, Laxmi Chhaya, and Minoo Mumtaz, to shine further. Where Helen eclipsed the careers of several others, she embodied a new twilight in cinematic dance, juxtaposing western and local dancing conventions . . . and, subsequently, giving rise to a neomodern aesthetic that continues to charm audiences to date. She was a fascinating bridge between traditional dance–forms like Bharatanatyam, Manipuri and Kathak and ‘foreign’ styles like cabaret, flamenco and belly dance, though she preferred performing western forms, which helped in the construction of her cinematic identity as ‘a dancer of cabaret’ in the 1960’s. Nonetheless, beneath this emergent stardom lay the conundrums of implicit sexism and voyeurism — stardom is never a simple, straightforward concept; it’s filled with loopholes.
Jerry Pinto’s account/criticism of Helen’s career, Helen: The Life and Times of a Bollywood H–Bomb (2006), details the quadruple stereotyping of Helen’s cinematic roles: being fair–skinned, a Christian, an immigrant, and a woman; and how her identity was constructed against the lead actress, who embodied the national/hegemonic notions of being Indian, Hindu, and a site of idealism and virginity. This socio-gender politics further catapulted the industry’s popular deployment of the figure of vamp. Historically, as Pinto insightfully reminds us, vampish roles were accorded to Anglo–Indian women, as their different aura eased the dichotomy between impurity and chastity, westernism and traditionalism, and helped producers uphold/celebrate the figure of the Indian Hindu woman. This politics was largely influenced by anticolonial sentiments and the then government’s attempts of nation–building . . . leading us to reflect on Phalke’s nationalist cinema. Certainly, this agenda derived many of its fundamental qualities from how Phalke and Nehru envisioned cinema. However, it touches a grey base when it begins facilitating the circulation of sexism and stereotyping, as many — like J. Pinto — today believe happened in the case of Helen. Nevertheless, it’s surprising to witness how the industry’s attempt to manipulate/abuse the unorthodox presence of Helen translated into a perpetual sense of national/mutual love for the icon, and further into the establishment of the cult of Helen with a very desi identity. It becomes one of the foundations of Pinto’s quest to study the cinema of Helen, which he sadly fails to answer, or at least does not sufficiently answer. Her costumes were outlandish, and her makeup was elaborate, and yet it never caused a stir in a conservative society as the India of the ’60s; an answer to this could be found — as many have pointed out — in the un-vulgarity of her personal style: ‘Yes, she has worn short skirts, she donned crop tops, but she never looked vulgar’, they remember today. Helen retained an unusual sense of innocence, which precluded audiences from perceiving her as the site of abjection/voyeurism and rather visualising her in terms of self–liberation, self–indulgence, and self–celebration.
Helen just smiled away, and I suppose that strongly determined how she was viewed. Yes, she played vampish roles, but she was never socially perceived as vamp — this reminds me of a funny instance when the veteran actor, Pran, began playing antagonistic roles during the late ’40s (up till the late ’80s), and people just stopped naming their children ‘Pran’; well, that speaks of Pran’s cinematic impact, but it also insinuates how strongly Indian society felt about the peoples of cinema. In a way, Helen’s audiences safeguarded and preserved her cinematic image which was, incidentally, constructed for them and their entertainment. Thus, India was able to enjoy one of the finest cabaret it could locally receive. The oeuvre of Helen is diverse and massive; and her popularity was abnormally stupendous — it was believed that producers used to deliberately include a dance by Helen to make their film run, and, in several instances, the film succeeded only because of her dance sequences. It was not just all: people used to return to cinema houses, rebuy tickets, just to rewatch her dance. Capitally, the dance was the producer’s win; yet they failed in many respects. India and Helen were so busy enjoying ‘Piya Tu Ab Tu Aaja’ (1971) that some plans were not even heard. But who ultimately won? I think we do know the answer.
Later in her career, Helen became the subject of a 30–minute documentary — directed by Anthony Korner — titled Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973) that explored the musical mélange of India via the trajectory of Helen’s career, and how music flirted with ideas of sensuality. In 1980, she won the coveted Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Lahu ke Do Rang (1979) before retiring in 1983/84. One of her final appearances as ‘the iconic Helen’ happens in Bond 303 (1985), albeit she continued a few acting pursuits in senior roles. What remains behind 1985, and what was initiated in 1958, is legendary, unsurpassable . . . a cinematic legacy of style, defiance, superhits, innovation, passion, influences, love. I’m always charmed when I think of an older interview of Helen when she mentions that she danced because she felt like dancing — completely unfettered, unbothered by what anyone else felt, she danced because she found her soul in it. She danced for herself, not for you and not for me . . . and that’s where her power came from.
I should take some inspiration from this.