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Dinesh Raheja

Helen was Marilyn Monroe with martyrdom. In a typical role in Teesri Manzil (1966), a devastatingly attractive Helen hangs like the sword of Damocles over Shammi Kapoor's head because he refuses to reciprocate her affection.

Eventually, while trying to help the hero, she bleeds to death in his arms, dagger in her back. After this archetypal Helen redemption, you couldn't help but feel sorry for her.

True, occasionally, this blonde-gone-bad unsheathed her manicured talons and inspired dread (Mere Jeevan Saathi, Don). She seemed equally, if not more, at home as a simpering simpatico (Dus Lakh, Inteqam).

Helen was famous for her cabarets in scores of films, but this sensuous danseuse exuded an aura of class that put her in a league of her own.

In an age of voluptuous vamps with well endowed hips, Helen stood out with a trim figure and eyes that sparkled like fiery emeralds. She possessed an enviable wardrobe, a profusion of feathers and an array of wigs (she was partial to the blonde wig throughout her career); she was the epitome of the sophisticated femme fatale.

Helen's Lead Roles
 Year  Film  Cast
 1960  Hum Hindustani  Joy Mukherjee
 1962  China Town  Shammi Kapoor
 1964  Cha Cha Cha  Chandrashekhar
 1964   Woh Kaun Thi  Manoj Kumar
 1964   Aaya Toofan  Dara Singh
 1970  Pagla Kahin Ka  Shammi Kapoor
 1976  Bairaag  Dilip Kumar
 1977  Imaan Dharam  Amitabh Bachchan
 1979  Lahu Ke Do Rang  Vinod Khanna

And to think there was a time when Helen had to struggle to make ends meet. Hers is a Cinderella story. An Anglo-Indian refugee from Burma, the young Helen, accompanied by her mother, made an arduous trek to India to escape the perils of World War II.

Since her mother's income as a nurse was inadequate, Helen quit school to work in films. While undergoing training in Kathak, Helen discovered she had a flair for dancing. Family friend Cuckoo was the leading dancer in Hindi films of the day. On her recommendation, the still-in-her-early-teens Helen got a break as a chorus dancer in Shabistan (1951).

She was part of the chorus in several films before her obvious talent was noticed and swiftly graduated to being solo dancer in films like Alif Laila (1953) and Hoor-e-Arab (1955).

Soon producers had cottoned onto the fact that Helen was a dancer whose feet were her fortune. She made a major splash with her Mr John ya Baba Khan number from the Dev Anand-Nutan starrer Baarish (1957). The very next year, Helen, looking delectable in a Chinese dress, had proved she had conclusively arrived with the O P Nayyar show-stopper Mera naam Chin Chin Choo from Howrah Bridge (1958).

Nightclub dances in the 1950s and cabaret numbers in the 1960 and the 1970s established Helen as a skilled Western dancer. But many of her semi-classical Indian dances like Tora man bada paapi (Ganga Jumna) and Ghungarwa mora chham chham baaje (Zindagi), were also successful.

Famous Helen Songs
 Song  Film  Singers
 Mera naam Chin
 Chin Choo
 Howrah Bridge  Geeta Dutt
 Gum chhodke
 manao rangreli
 Gumnaam  Lata Mangeshkar
 Oh haseena  zulfonwali  Teesri Manzil  Asha Bhosle, Mohammad  Rafi
 Aa jaane jaa  Inteqam  Lata Mangeshkar
 Kar le pyar kar le, ki
 din hain yehi
 Talash  Asha Bhosle
 Peeya tu ab toh
 aa jaa
 Caravan  Asha Bhosle
 Aao na gale
 lagao na
 Mere Jeevan  Saathi  Asha Bhosle
 Mehbooba  mehbooba  Sholay  R D Burman
 Moongda moongda Inkaar  Usha Mangeshkar
 Yeh mera dil, pyar
 ka deewana
 Don  Asha Bhosle

More often, Helen's Anglicised looks were exploited for an Occidental item number or in an acting role which served to accentuate the contrast between the freethinking Westernised vamp and the traditional Indian heroine (Babita in Dus Lakh, Raakhee in Mere Sajna).

Helen's looks also proved to be a major obstacle when she tried to make it as a heroine. She played leading lady to heroes ranging from Chandrashekhar (in the sleeper success Cha Cha Cha, where she got to warble numbers like Do badan pyar ki aag mein jal gaye) to Amitabh (Imaan Dharam) -- but, strangely, the devil gave Helen her due only when she was portraying a shade of evil.

Helen did push the envelope when it came to provocation on screen, but she took care to wear skin-coloured body stockings in most of her cabarets even when she donned daring outfits. Anyway, with her innate grace, she was incapable of looking sleazy. Her famously aloof attitude on film sets also helped.

Barring the occasional film like Pagla Kahin Ka (where she played Shammi Kapoor's first love who falls victim to a rape), producers cast Helen as an exuberant libertine. She vindicated their faith by imbibing her characters with vitality. Witness the carefree Kitty from Gumnaam, who dances with abandon on a beach to Gam chhodke manao rangreli, only to be lynched a few reels later.

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Helen enjoyed 20 years as cabaret queen of Hindi films in pulsating numbers like Chin chin choo, Aaya ya sukku sukku, Yeh mera dil pyar ka deewana. By the 1970s, Bindu decamped with the meatier vamp roles, and a spate of young dancers like Padma Khanna and Aruna Irani created a definite dent in Helen's monopoly.

For Helen, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that she underwent major financial problems. With age, the number of roles that came her way began to shrink. At this juncture, she got involved with writer Salim Khan. He helped bail her out of the mess and offered her important roles in three films he was co-scripting with Javed Akhtar: Imaan Dharam, Don and Dostana.

Mahesh Bhatt offered her a histrionically-demanding role in Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979). At the fag end of her career, Helen won Filmfare's Best Supporting Actress Award for her role as Vinod Khanna's Oriental wife.

Thereafter, Helen shocked many by acknowledging the relentless footfalls of time and playing Zeenat's mother in Ram Balram (1980)! She married Salim, worked out an amicable equation with his first wife and family, and receded from the screen.

Today, Helen enjoys a semi-retired life. Occasionally, she dons grease paint for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Khamoshi). As testimony to the perennial popularity of her dances, A-list heroines like Aishwarya Rai and Urmila Matondkar dance to her numbers at stage shows.

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