Nov 21 2016

9 things you didn't know about dancing star Helen

by   Sonal Pandya

Her exotic past, colourful career and fabulous legacy — here's what you probably don't know about our original Dancing Queen on her 78th birthday today (21 November).


Arguably the most famous dancer in Hindi cinema, Helen was born on 21 November 1938 in Burma (now Myanmar). However, Jerry Pinto's book on Helen lists her birthday as 14 July. Her mother Marlene was of Spanish and Burmese descent, while her father was a Frenchman. After her father's demise, her mother remarried a British officer and her name became Helen Richardson.


Known primarily for her cabaret numbers, Helen learnt Manipuri from Ratti Bapu at a young age and later took lessons in Kathak and Bharatnatyam from choreographer PL Raj.


Helen graduated from dancing as a chorus girl in the background to getting her close-up in her first film Shabistan (1951) thanks to her association (through her mother) to the famed dancer of the 1940s, Cuckoo. She was 13 years old at the time. Two years later, she had her first solo dance in K. Amarnath's Arif Laila (1953).


Helen got her chance to appear opposite her predecessor Cuckoo in Bimal Roy's Yahudi (1958), a retelling of Agha Hashar Kashmiri's play Yahudi Ki Ladki. They both danced together onscreen in the song, 'Bechain Dil Khoyi Si Nazar', sung by Geeta Dutt and Lata Mangeshkar. They also got a chance to perform together again that year in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.


The film adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then They Were None, Gumnaam (1965) had Helen earning her first Filmfare nomination for Best Supporting Actress as Kitty Kelly, one of seven murder suspects who wins an island trip in a lucky draw.


While she remained nameless in several films or was usually known as Rosie, Kitty or Suzy in smaller roles, Helen got to retain her own name in 1967's Jewel Thief as the girlfriend of Amar, the famed jewel thief and doppelgänger to Dev Anand's Vinay.


Any film with Helen was almost always known for its songs and/or dance numbers featuring her. Hulchul (1971), starring writer-producer-director OP Ralhan alongside Prem Chopra and Madan Puri, had no songs yet had a peppy instrumental soundtrack by music composer RD Burman. Hulchul was also the film debut of actors Zeenat Aman and Kabir Bedi.


In 1973, filmmaker Ismail Merchant helped make a short documentary on Helen called Helen, Queen Of The Nautch Girls. Merchant had previously worked with her on Bombay Talkie (1970) and aided director and narrator Anthony Korner to create a cinematic tribute to her career.


Helen won her first Filmfare Award (for Best Supporting Actress) for the film Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979). Directed by Mahesh Bhatt, Helen played Suzy, a young woman in Hong Kong who helps Samsher Singh, played by Vinod Khanna, an officer in the Indian army against the British. When Samsher leaves her and their unborn son behind to go back to India, Suzy gets addicted to drugs by Shamsher's disreputable friend Shankar aka Devi Dayal, played by Ranjeet.