Helen remembers the fabulous dancer Cuckoo 

Actress-dancer Cuckoo Moray, who passed away 35 years ago on 30 September, was Hindi cinema’s first major dancing star in the 1940s and 1950s. Helen, who carried on her dancing mantle in the industry, spoke about her dancing style and guidance in the early stages of her career.

Sonal Pandya

The Anglo-Indian actress Cuckoo Moray was amongst the first dancer to make an impact with audiences. She first appeared on the big screen with films like Mujrim (1944), Pehli Nazar (1945) and Arab Ka Sitara (1946). In Mehboob Khan’s Anokhi Ada (1948), she performed a key dance number as a featured dancer. She gave the ‘cabaret’ number great popularity with her dances in films like Bazaar (1949) and Awara (1951).

Besides dancing, she went to star alongside Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Andaz (1949). But she quickly established herself as the top dancer of her time. A highly sought-after actress, she charged Rs6,000 per song and reportedly lived an extravagant life (she had one of her three cars to take her dogs out for a drive).

In the 1950s, her filmography grew extensively. Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952) was the only colour film in which she danced; she gave up films as other contenders came into the fore. One of them was Helen, her young protégée who went on to dominate the dance scene in Hindi cinema.

Helen recalled her initial interactions with the star, “I met her when I used to go to school. I was in a boarding school before I met them. Mummy got friendly with them, that’s how I met them. [We] got friendly with the family when I was in boarding school and then when I came back from school, I got friendly with the sister and we used to go to the studios with Cuckoo. Somehow or the other, my mother thought that she would like me to enter the films too. I was very young then, I must have been about 12 or 13 years old. In short, it was Cuckoo who got me into the line.”

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

When asked when Cuckoo influenced her to appear in films, Helen laughed and replied, “She didn’t influence me, I think she influenced my mother. Because I didn’t dream of becoming anything, I didn’t dream of entering the films. I was only dreaming of having fun with my friends and going to school.”

Cuckoo helped the young Helen gain a foothold in the Hindi film world. “She was in this film called Shabistan (1951) and I was in the chorus because I was too young. In those days, they were not known as item numbers, it was known as solo dances. I was too young for that. So I was just as a group dancer. So for about a year, I was in the chorus and after that, I was selected to do one duet dance.”

Helen stated that Cuckoo was instrumental in her getting into films. The two even danced together in Bimal Roy’s Yahudi (1958) and Heera Moti (1958). She further added, “And leaving alone the films aside, she was a lovely person. [She was a] very nice lady, very down to earth.”

After her retirement from films, Cuckoo lived a hard life and faced many financial difficulties before she died on 30 September 1981. Helen ended our conversation saying, “I would love everybody to know who she was. She was a very good dancer, she had a style and [was] very graceful and she had a beautiful smile.”