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Trying to make sense of Helen

Last updated on: March 29, 2006 17:09 IST

Jerry Pinto discusses his book Helen The Life and Times of An H-Bomb with Senior Features Editor Lindsay Pinto.

'There will never be another Helen'

You tried getting in touch with Helen, but failed. Was she averse to the idea of someone telling her story?

I suspect that Helen has probably had enough of people asking her inane questions about her life and times. If you think about it, there have been four films made on her.

The first was James Ivory's Helen: Queen of the Nautch Girls, whose title itself seems exotic at this remove.

Then there was Helen: Always in Step by Nasreen Munni Kabir, in which she was interviewed by Khalid Mohamed and it is clear that she did not enjoy playing herself in front of the camera, even though she comes across as warm and charming and unaffected.

The third, Desperately Seeking Helen by the young Canadian filmmaker Eisha Marjara seemed to me to be a way of looking at the way in which Helen defined femininity as against the way Marjara's mother tackled the problems of being an immigrant.

The fourth was Anuj Vaidya's video documentary, which, again, used the legend of Helen to explore the marginality of the gay man. She did not participate in the last two films.

Quite possibly, she simply did not feel that she had much to say. Or perhaps she simply did not know who I was, where I was coming from and how I was going to write about her. So, in the end, I gave up, but not without a heartfelt sigh…

Helen often served as a ready stereotype. She was usually present to depict the immorality of a Western or, more often than not, a Christian woman. Is that what attracted you to her story? Could you connect with that story at any level?

Lily (or more often Lilly), Rosie, Kitty, Suzie…they were the good time girls, the ones who smoked cigarettes, danced in clubs, had a good time and paid for it by dying in the end.

As a Roman Catholic boy who watched Hindi cinema, I think I could always see that Catholics of any description were seen as outsiders in commercial Hindi cinema.

In the book, I argue that this was simply a question of who went to see Hindi cinema and who didn't. While Bollywood was willing to make secular gestures by representing Muslims as positive characters, Parsis and Catholics could easily be caricatured because they were 'Westernised' -- they did not watch Hindi cinema. In that sense, therefore, yes, I felt that I was an outsider who was looking at another outsider.

When Salman Rushdie came calling

Considering this is a look at a career spanning little over 30 years, your book is extremely well-researched. What was the hardest part -- collating all that data or trying to give it shape?

That is a perceptive question. The fun part was watching the movies. The difficult part was reading some 200,000 words of notes and trying to figure out what should stay and what should go. Should one mention the purple eye shadow and the green tights? And what about that wonderful boy band in the Beatle wigs in the background? Should one analyse the lyrics or should one describe the movements?

How does one sum up in a paragraph the huge baggy grab-all narrative so as to contextualise Helen? That was what took the greater part of the three years that went into the book.

Next: What were Helen's career-defining films?

Friday: Don't miss an exclusive excerpt from Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb

Lindsay Pereira