Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Helen: From item girl to icon

Celebrating Hindi cinema’s first siren and her body of work—1,000-odd movies and numerous unforgettable dance numbers

Writing a biography of a person who is either dead or does not cooperate is a tricky task. But Jerry Pinto is nothing if not clever. He has done away with the embarrassment of Helen Richardson Khan not answering his calls (as many as 100, over three years) by dispensing with the term biography altogether.

In the course of Pinto’s Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, we find out almost as much about the Franco-Burmese actor/dancer as we do about Pinto, who grew up watching and loving Hindi movies in the seventies, even as the rest of the middle-class was scoffing at its kitschy ways.

So far so good. Pinto’s work was always going to be difficult. Despite Bollywood’s venerable tradition of scandal-sheets, not much is known of Helen’s personal life—colourful though it appears to have been, with a long, exploitative relationship with B-movie czar P.N. Arora followed by another, more respectable, but equally controversial marriage to writer Salim Khan who was already married.

Pinto’s book does not give us more information either on these two relationships, or, except for a few details gleaned from a magazine interview, anything about Helen’s determined mother, Marlene, who would slap her around in the hope that she would become a star. But that’s not to say that Pinto has not put in any effort.

His appreciation of Helen’s work turns out to be an enormous forensic exercise, involving the tracking down of at least 450 of her self-proclaimed 1,000-odd movies, of which some are obscure, while others are well-known. His reading of her performances is as entertaining as it is indicative of a considerable depth of knowledge, which takes the reader from a rumination on the significance of hotels in Hindi cinema to the mostly ridiculous depiction of Christians.

Perhaps it is befitting that Helen’s repertoire from Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo in Howrah Bridge (1958) to Mehbooba Mehbooba in Sholay (1975) said more about the audience than it did about her. Pinto does manage to answer some fundamental questions he sets himself—why she didn’t go from bit-part to big star, from C-list to A-list?

Now, if only we knew why she stayed with Arora so long, why she didn’t have children, what she thinks of her many imitators, and what was she thinking when she wore her typical workplace outfit-from high Arabian fantasy to tribal in deepest, darkest Africa? Helen doesn’t tell and Pinto doesn’t ask. We, the neo-readers fed on a constant diet of too much information on two-bit stars, need to know. Especially when it is someone we’ve elevated from a person to persona, item girl to icon, outsider to ultimate insider. Such women don’t have a history, says a character played by Helen of a suspected prostitute in Anamika (1973). Well, Helen certainly has one. And it certainly deserves a more complete account.

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