Padmashri Helen Khan has come a long way not just in her career as India’s most highly remembered, highly respected and highly loved but also for being the “Golden Girl” of Hindi cinema. You wouldn’t know her as Helen Khan but everyone knows her as Helen, the twinkle-toed dancer with a seductive smile who was sometimes part of the villain’s gang and at other times secretly helping the hero find his way into the villain’s lair.
That’s Helen for you. Born Helen Richardson on October 21, 1939 in Bettiah, Burma to an Anglo-Indian father and Burmese mother, she was Christian by birth. She has a brother named Roger and a sister called Jennifer. She lost her father in World War II and in fact, it was to escape the dangers of those times that she and her mother, a nurse by profession, escaped to Mumbai, India in 1943.
Her mother’s salary was very small, so Helen decided to quit school and work to bring in some more money. She wanted to act in films, and readied herself by taking Kathak lessons. In the course of these lessons, she realized that she loved dancing and with the help of a friend and an already established film dancer, Cuckoo, she got her first break in Shabistan and Awaara (1951) as a chorus dancer.
This was her first foray into films and she was soon seen as a solo dancer in Alif Laila (1952) and Hoor-e-Arab (1953). She grew famous for her seductive number, Mr. John O Baba Khan in the film Baarish. Right through the 50s and until the 70s, she dominated the film world as a cabaret dancer and continued to give her trademark solo performances, wearing shimmery, seductive and sensuous wear, sometimes teasing the men at a bar with her “look at me, don’t touch me” appeal, and at other times playing Miss Provocative in her cabaret numbers. The look in her eyes was far more intoxicating than any of the bottles of the finest booze she poured into the glasses of her admirers.
In 1958, at age 19, she danced to the song Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu in Shakti Samanta’s Howrah Bridge, sung by Geeta Dutt. This film won her not just a lot of appreciation but also put her in business as a cabaret dancer. This was her niche in which she held sway for the next two decades.
The popularity of this song won her the sobriquet of “Cabaret Queen.” She was outstanding not just for her footwork but for her unusual looks—her blond hair, black eyes and fair skin and her overall Sino-Western appearance—really set her apart from the others and categorized her as vamp, never a heroine.
She acted in plum roles in a variety of films such as Changez Khan (1957), Hum Hindustani (1960), Ek Phool Char Kante (1960), Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), Gunga Jamuna (1961), Umar Qaid (1961), China Town (1962) Who Kaun Thi? and Gumnaam (1965), among others and won the Filmfare Award for the Best Supporting Actress for Gumnaam (1965) and in 1968, yet again she won the award in the same category as before for her role in Shikar (1968).
Helen didn’t remain only a dancer—she broad based her talents into acting too and ended up acting with all the leading male stars of the times. In fact, early in her career, she acted in Gumnam in which she played the role of one of a team of people who are trapped on an unknown island and killed one by one. This film had the haunting song composed by Shankar-Jaikishan, “Is duniya me jeena hai to sunlo meri baat” in a style that suited her dancing style.
She also played the dramatic role of a rape victim in yet another Shakti Samanta film, titled Pagla Kahin Ka (1970). Here, she plays the lover of the hero of the film, Shammi Kapoor, only to jilt him and marry Prem Chopra. Shammi Kapoor loses his mental balance, as a result, and is admitted into mental hospital where he is treated by a psychiatrist Asha Parekh. They fall in love but not before Helen does a tantalizing dance number.
As was the trend then in Bollywood, Helen too did not sing her own songs but often Asha Bhosle sang the sexy, teasing numbers she danced to. Together with Asha Bhosle’s vocals, Helen added her own energy and charm to each number.
In the decades to come, she became the No. 1 dancing queen of the Bollywood film industry and received many opportunities to show off her dancing and acting skills. Till date, she has acted in over 500 Bollywood movies, truly an amazing feat for any dancer-actress!! She has also performed in several stage shows in London, Hong Kong and Paris.
For a dancer, Helen had to wear revealing costumes, and she was soon known for this, her colored contact lenses and her stylish wigs. Her appearance, her unusual looks, her talent and beauty made her the scene-stealer in every movie she acted—often stealing the thunder of the heroines too! Soon, she was known as the “Queen of the Nautch Girls” and the “Queen of Bollywood Bad Girls.”
Western dance wasn’t her limitation, she also did a mujhra for the film Bahu Begum. The song was set to music by Roshan and was titled “Nikele the kahan janeke liye” and was sung by Asha Bhosle. In 1966, she sang and danced to the ever-popular number in Teesri Manzil, titled “Oh haseena zulfowali” set to music by RD Burman and sung by Asha Bhosle and Mohd. Rafi. This singing-dancing duo set the trend of a foot-tapping musical trend in the 1960s and well into the 70s. In 1971, however, she won the Best Supporting Actress award for Elan.
Notable movies of her career are Jewel Thief(1967), Prince (1969), Intequam (1969), The Train (1970), Caravan (1971), Hulchul (1971), Hungama (1971), Upasana (1971), Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972), Apradh (1972), Anamika (1973), Shareef Badmash (1973), Sholay (1975), Zakhmee (1975), Kaala Sona (1975), Bairaag (1976),
Imaan Dharam (1977), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Don (1978), Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979), The Great Gambler (1979), Shaan (1980), Abdullah (1980), Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Mohabbatein (2000), and Marigold (2007).
For someone who held sway for so long and whose passion for dancing comes through in all her movies, it must have been terrible to see her career hit an abyss. In the 1970s, the heroines of the times did all the seductive scenes themselves, leaving no work for the likes of Helen. She fell on bad times as no roles were forthcoming.
At the time, scriptwriter Salim Khan, father of Salman Khan, Arbaaz Khan and Sohail Khan, came to her help with roles in movies like Imaan Dharam, Don, Sholay and Dostana, which he was co-scripting with Javed Akhtar. Born of that was the fantastic and unforgettable cabaret number Yeh mera dil, pyaar ka deewana from Don which (according to me) Kareena Kapoor couldn’t replicate with equal sexual charm in the new Don. For someone well past the age of 40, she was absolutely amazing.
After this, she also acted in Lahu Ke Do Rang, directed by Mahesh Bhatt and won the Filmfare Best Supporting actress Award for her role in this film. Soon after this, she married Soon afterwards, she married Salim Khan and became his second wife. Later they adopted a daughter, Arpita.
In 1973, Merchant Ivory Films made a 30-minute documentary on her life, titled “Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls.” This documentary film also has her famous typewriter dance sequence from Bombay Talkie, another earlier highly acclaimed Merchant Ivory film.
Another film on Helen was directed by Anthony Korner and was titled The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, based on the book A Book about Helen, published by Jerry Pinto. In 2007, this movie won the National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema.
For several years after marriage, Helen did not act in any movies but in 1999-2000, she returned to the screen not as a dancer but in emotional roles, first in Khamoshi and then in Mohabbatein. In Mohabbatein, she plays the strict principal of a girls’ school who is pulled onto the dance floor and wows everyone with her dancing. She also did a small special appearance in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam as Salman Khan’s mother. In 1996, she won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actress for Khamoshi: The Musical and in 1998, she won the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2009, she won the Padma Shri award.
Best songs of Helen’s career
- ‘Piya tu ab to aaja‘ (Carvan): She played Monica, oh my darling with her fish-net stockings and her frilled red and black skirt and top.
- ‘Yeh mera dil pyaar ka deewana‘ (Don): Dressed in a sexy white dress, she does a sexy number that’s absolutely unforgettable. After all, she’s going to preen, make suggestive eye gestures, pout and tease the Don, Amitabh Bachchan. Again, it’s sung to Asha Bhonsle’s vocals.
- ‘Mehbooba mehbooba’ (Sholay): Such high-voltage dancing could only have been possible by Helen. She’s light on her feet as she moves about in her gypsy theme role, doing her belly dance and hip gyrations, sensuously and invitingly. Truly, too hot to handle.
- Mera naam chin chin chu (Howrah Bridge): A new and fresh dancer, Helen presents herself as Miss Chin Chin Choo in an oriental dress, slanting eyes, paper fan—the works. And she dances like a dream!
- ‘O haseena zulfonwali’ (Teesri Manzil): Here, she experiments with hats, make-up, wigs, and matches different dance styles and matching attire to produce sheer electricity in her dancing with Shammi Kapoor.
- Aiyay ya suku, suku (Junglee): She does a jaw-dropping flamenco number here with matching footwork and ably complemented by Shammi Kapoor. They set fire to the dance floor with this song and dance—something cinegoers haven’t yet forgotten.
- ‘Aa jaan-e-jaan‘ (Inteqam): Helen performs all the gimmicks typical of a Helen dance number and thrills audiences with this number. This is a free style ballet number done slowly and sensuously and of course, to perfect timing, which was one of her finer points. She looks sexy and sophisticated and dresses unconventionally to give a surreal look.
Article by By Mithi Chinoy
Buy Howrah Bridge starring HELEN
[ReviewAZON asin=”B000PGW3RW” display=”fullpost”]