Looking back at a long-lost 1973 documentary that offered a glimpse of the dancer-actress’s life at the time.
Getting candid with Helen, Queen Of Nautch Girls – Birthday special
Mumbai - 21 Nov 2017 10:00 IST
In 1973, dancer-actress Helen was the subject of a documentary made by Merchant Ivory Productions. Famed producer Ismail Merchant and writer James Ivory came together with director Anthony Korner to produce a look into the strange and wonderful world of Hindi film songs, especially those that featured Helen. The documentary, narrated by Korner, was called Helen, Queen Of Nautch Girls.
The Oxford dictionary says nautch means “a traditional dance performed by professional dancing girls”. In Hindi cinema, though, there were actresses known especially for their dances, from Azurie to Cuckoo to Helen. The latter remained a staple in films due to her longevity and popularity with songs like ‘Piya Tu Ab To Aaja’ from Caravan (1971) and ‘O Mungada Mungada’ from Inkaar (1977).
The documentary, which seems made primarily for a Western audience, showcases some of Helen's popular songs and tries to offer an insight into the world of cabaret numbers. But the most interesting segment of the film is a section where Helen gets ready for a dance number, that too for a Merchant Ivory production, Bombay Talkie (1970).
The sequence begins with Helen sitting in front of a mirror, devoid of makeup. In a voiceover, she narrates the early events of her life; coming to India with her mother, brother and sister from Burma. Helen talked about her mother, a nurse, raising them all in a one-room flat.
Now that she has joined films and begun earning well, she takes delight in naming her purchases; from a gramophone to better food, an apartment and, finally, a new car. Helen also credited dancer Cuckoo, a family friend, who helped her find a foothold in the industry as a chorus dancer.
She notes that she was hardly 13 or 14 when she started and it was the song ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo’ from Howrah Bridge (1958) that launched her into the limelight. She was 16 at the time.
She tells Korner, “In those days, I used to be quite happy-go-lucky, not knowing my future. We used to work practically day and night, two shifts a day from 9(am) to 6:30(pm) and then from 10(pm) to 5(am), around 20 days a month. The more work, the more money in the house.”
She details her daily routine; beginning the day with yoga, and doing her makeup herself, as she does for the camera, too. Though her schedule is gruelling and exhaustive, Helen herself doesn’t feel it so, she is now used to it. “When I’m not working, I get exhausted doing nothing,” she remarks.
Asked about her retirement plan, she says, “It depends, a dancer can go on for quite some time, if she looks after her health, figure and not too many late nights, exercise, good nourishment. Well, I think I can go on for another three, four years. And then after that, character roles. Once you put makeup on, you just can’t leave the line. So many people have tried, but they still come back. Character artistes can go on and on.”
In the documentary, she also reveals that all her costumes had her personal approval. She did the shopping for her songs (costumes and makeup) from abroad, gathering things like glitter and ostrich feathers as part of her costumes.
Once fully dressed in her glittering golden outfit, Helen is ready to film the duet, ‘Type Writer’, sung by Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar, with Shashi Kapoor for Bombay Talkie (1970). The song was actually filmed atop a giant red typewriter.
The last candid look at Helen is in a car, where she sits dressed in a burkha as the camera focuses on her face. She reflects on her fame, saying, “I got my fame and everything very slowly but steady and I think that’s much better, than sort of just rising. You have to climb the ladder, you can’t just jump on the ladder, you will fall down.”
The dancer-actress continued her career into the 1980s with notable appearances in films up until the turn of the millennium. Her latest acting role was in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine (2012).