No one shook a boogie like Helen

By Neena Badhwar

No one, no one in the Indian film industry shook her boogie as Helen did in those movies of yesteryears which could not do without her item numbers. All those movies of 50s and 60s had to have Helen we all remember. Helen was not only charming, she was beautiful or may be more than the heroine at times, always on the side of the hero, her dance would be the climax in some with poor heroine tied to a pole.

This Burmese beauty was stylish, charismatic, dressed in drop-dead costumes and courted a figure that every heroine in the industry was envious of, Helen always designed her own costumes, her hair-dos and used to wear contact lenses of different hues that she imported herself, designing the look to perfection, even stitching the dresses herself that she wore in films, she has claimed in some of her interviews. Helen says she used to follow a strict regimen of diet, regular exercise and daily morning yoga which helped her maintain her figure as many actresses grew old in her three decades when she reigned the film industry.

One would think of Helen as the cabaret girl but the grace with which she carried herself, there was not an inch of vulgarity in her moves that one sees in the item numbers of today. Her presence brought a freshness and her roles an innocence who is out to help out the hero and the heroine in a tight tension filled scene, sometimes she taking the bullet on her chest to save them. This talented actress is known for her agile dances, intricate footwork, someone who was equally adept in Kathak as she proved to be the most consummate dancer in her own right even beating the best of the classical dancers such as Vyjantimala. True that she was the ”˜haseena’, ”˜naazneena’ and no one ever could match her  in her skill or will be like her.

Helen was born in Rangoon as Helen Ann Richardson to an Anglo-Indian father and Burmese mother the family moving to India during the second world war when Japan attacked Burma as the family moved on foot for months through the thick jungles at times going hungry for days, as their caravan of refugees trekked on foot half of whom died by the time they reached India. When the family finally reached the film capital of India, called Bombay then, they struggled to survive as her mother worked as a nurse and also did odd jobs and happen to befriend another great cabaret dancers of those days, Cuckoo who gave Helen her first break in films as a chorus girl. She says she was only 14 years old and was padded to look big when the director happen to see her close up and pointed ”˜ki isko lo’ in her next solo item. Helen on the side learnt Manipuri, Bharatnatyam and Kathak dances which she says were a must if one was to dance in films.

Soon her stars turned for the better when she got the famous number ”˜Mera Naam Chin Chin Chin Choo’ in the film ”˜Hawrah Bridge’. She looked amazingly youthful and stunning in her number, got noticed with offers of many solo items in major films like Raj Kapoor’s ”˜Awara’ and thus never looked back. Helen also got supporting roles as actress in the movie ”˜China Town’ with Shammi Kapoor and was nominated as the Best Supporting Actress Filmfare Award in the movie ”˜Gumnaam’. In all Helen acted in close to 700 films appearing as a guest in the film ”˜Mohabbatein’ with Shahrukh Khan and ”˜Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ with Salman Khan in her later years.

Helen retired from the film industry having settled and married to Javed Akhtar’s brother Salim Khan, a well known script writer, who she came in close contact during the making of Don, Sholay and Imaan Dharam.

Cinema goers remember her in songs: ”˜Huzoorewala jo hogi ijazat’ in ”˜Ye raat phir na aayegi’; ”˜Aa jaane jaan mera ye husn jawan’ in the movie Inteqam; ”˜Karle pyar karne ke din hain yahi’ in the movie ”˜Talash’; ”˜Ye mera dil yaar ka deewana’ in the film ”˜Don’; ‘Ninety Fifty Six, Ninety Fifty Seven, Ninety Fifty Eight’ in the film ‘Anari’ are some of the memorable dances of Helen, if you would like to watch this great lady do the boogie !

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