I miss the films of the seventies…When I watch an item number now, so much more glossy, so much better choreographed, the women with bodies honed to reptilian perfection and dressed in much better clothes, the men all gloss and muscle, I miss the old dances in which Helen performed…The item numbers of the ’00s take themselves very seriously. In the moue that is the standard sexualized challenge on every female dancer’s face, I do not find the laughing invitation to naughtiness that I remember in Helen’s. You would not dare laugh at – no, not even with - these women…They’re never out of step but they’re not having fun.
(from Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb)
Jerry Pinto’s Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb is enjoyable on many counts, starting with the author’s infectious enthusiasm for Hindi movies of the past - familiar to those of us who have read his columns and articles on the subject. Pinto is precise, passionate and insightful, which is very welcome given the general lack of intelligent personal writing on Bollywood.
He is also ambivalent about the films, which is something any mainstream Hindi-movie buff can understand. Those of us who grew up on Bollywood (even those who eventually grew out of it) still struggle to come to terms with the experience; with the influence it had on us during those vital formative years. We enjoy making fun of all the kitsch ourselves, but we bristle when someone else does it (especially if it’s someone who hasn’t grown up with those films and never had a personal compact with them). We get defensive about things that are difficult to defend, we don’t find it convenient to accept that while growing up we took these movies quite seriously – that we didn’t merely give them our approval on the grounds that they were kitschy (which is now the preferred approach to Hindi movies of the 1970s and 1980s). Consequently, while this book is a fine examination of Helen’s screen persona and the role she played in the peculiar moral universe defined by Bollywood, it works at another level too.
Pinto makes it clear early on that this isn’t a biography of Helen (he never even succeeded in speaking to her, though he tried) – the subtitle “The Life and Times of an H-Bomb” is slightly misleading. What the book is, is a well-researched, intensive study of a dancing career that spanned over three decades and over 500 films (though Helen herself claimed the figure was closer to 1,000!), and which tells us a lot about the way Bollywood functioned during that time.
It is, for example, a reminder of how shamelessly, cheerfully racist (and sexist) Hindi cinema has been over the decades. Some of the specifics are quite shocking if you don’t have a strong memory of films from the 1960s and 1970s. As Pinto notes:
“Contrasting the white woman and the black or tribal man was a way of maintaining an ambiguity about the lust lives of Indians. As Aryans (our way of distancing ourselves from the more uncomfortable term ‘brown’), Indians could be seen as representing a civilised mid-point between the lust of primitives and the degenerate liberation of white people.”(As an aside: anyone remember those buffoons who played “Chinese” soldiers in films made around the time of the 1962 war? The ones who would run around screaming “Chin choo chou chou chou chou”?)
During Helen’s heyday in the 1960s, her principal function was to represent the depravity of the Anglo-Indian/Catholic/westernised woman – she served as a contrast to the chaste heroine and, on occasion, a marker of the hero’s descent into vice. Within this broad role, there were other functions she performed (as White Goddess, as Moll, as Skeleton in the Closet, even as Second Lead being wooed by the bumbling comedian), and Pinto illuminates them all by providing synopses of (and commentary on) dozens of films from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Even independently of what they tell us about Helen’s career, these descriptions are worth the price of admission. They are brilliantly tongue-in-cheek and make for an entertaining journey down memory lane for the movie buff. I love the way a simple exclamation mark is used, for instance, while describing a film where Moushumi Chatterjee plays a feminist(!) while Shabana Azmi is the traditional Indian doormat(!). And while there are too many examples to quote here, I can’t resist setting one down:
[In Aap Beeti] rich boy Ranjit (Shashi Kapoor) falls in love with poor girl Geeta (Hema Malini). At one point he brings ‘Rita darling’ (Helen) to the shoe store at which Geeta works. Rita is wearing a hat and very little blouse and very little skirt. Ranjit then tells Geeta that Rita darling and he are getting married on Sunday.Pinto succeeds in showing why Hindi cinema needed a Helen figure to validate its beliefs and principles (“she almost always failed, which was perhaps the secret of her success. In failing she kept the moral universe intact”), but he never really provides an understanding of why this particular performer was so successful for so long, while many other wannabe vamps fell by the wayside. This is perhaps inevitable, for beyond a point star quality is analysis-resistant. It’s possible to say that Helen had an expressive face, that her abhinaya was more deeply felt than that of most other dancers. It’s possible to point out also that she somehow managed to do the silliest things in the most tasteless contexts without coming across as vulgar herself. But it isn’t possible to precisely define how all this adds up to make one of Hindi cinema’s most enduring screen personae. That secret must remain hidden between the performer and the audience.
“Is this your girlfriend?” Rita asks, an odd question for a fiancée.
“I’m a rich man’s son so poor women always try to befriend me,” he says.
“Where do we go for a honeymoon?” asks Rita, mistress of the non sequitur, stroking his arm.
“From Liverpool to swimming pool, wherever you want,” he replies, to her strange delight. Geeta stalks off in a rage – she has already expressed her disbelief in his love in a song on a surreal set populated by humongous shoes and sandals in primary colours.
The book's description of Helen’s transition from cabaret dancer to Hindi-film legend without ever having been a star (no one ever went to see a film specifically because she was in it) is noteworthy too – it shows the strange ways in which the celebrity machinery works. In fact, the belated conferring of respectability on Helen (with the lifetime achievement Filmfare award, her progression to a maternal figure in recent movies and even her brief self-referential dances in films like Mohabbatein) says some interesting things about Bollywood's relationship with its own past.
Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb is a very personal work; in places it reads almost like a movie-buff’s private journal, and the film book it most reminds me of is Peter Conrad’s excellent The Hitchcock Murders. What’s common to the two books is that neither of them is too concerned with making definite, structured arguments or belaboring a point – they are freewheeling, conversational and fuelled entirely by the author’s childlike enthusiasm for his subject. Conrad, with seeming randomness, suddenly picks up an aspect of Hitchcock’s work that he finds interesting and then elaborates on it by examining scenes from different movies. Pinto’s approach is slightly more structured (each chapter has subheads, examining a different aspect of Helen’s roles), but the overall effect of his book is similar. You feel like you’re part of an intense coffee-shop conversation. About Bollywood Gold.