Sunday, March 19, 2006

The face that launched a thousand gyrations

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.

“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.
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.

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.


  1. Nice review! Will try to pick up that book.

    Clarification - the Chinese soldiers depicted at the time of the '62 war? or were you referring to the Indo-Chinese war film made during the time of the Indo-Pak war of '65?

  2. Oops, I meant the '62 war! Have changed it now...

  3. I do not know if you've read an earlier book by Pinto called 'Surviving Women'.

    I personally thought it was brilliant!

  4. If you have the stomach for it I can relate an obscene story that, according to legend, Shashi Tharoor, dreamt up when he was challenged to connect Satyajit Ray and Helen Aunty.


  5. DD: in case jai lacks the stomach(?!), can you please mail it to the id given above...
    many thanx

  6. DD: excellent. Please post it here.

  7. Sounds like a fascinating book. I've seen a few films with Helen in them now. While I've never found her attractive, her cheekiness and charisma on camera have often led me to wonder why she was mostly relegated to mere bit parts. And Sholay wouldn't have been the same without the "Mehbooba" number.

  8. Who can forget the first ever ITEM' girl? Apparently, some films had a 'Helen' item song just to make it more appealing to the masses.

  9. Jai,

    You made a very good comment about Hindi movies being racist and sexist. I am not really sure anything has changed even now.

    The beautiful thing about Helen was the dignity she brought to the role, even wearing those terrible clothes.

    Maybe, it was because she was comfortable with her own skin.

  10. Reading the book on the life of actress Helen is a wonderful experience. I didn't know most of the things about the said actress earlier. Its worth reading this books. I got it at discounted price from anonline bookshop at
    Great to know you Helen.

  11. Hi, good review.
    Jerry Pinto's good. Here's another piece by him on Bollywood published in Tehelka. It's a bit long but it's definitely worth the read.

    Karan and the Chocolate Factory

    There are two narratives of success in Hindi cinema. The first is that of the struggler. Armed with nothing more than good looks and talent, the struggler arrives and makes the rounds of studios. He is insulted, rejected, spurned, but he never gives up. The other is that of the insider, the super-cool narrative of refusals and oh-god-don’t-force-me-to-do-this... and then the huge success.

    Karan Johar’s trajectory falls into the latter. His good friend Aditya Chopra pushed him to do something or the other — handle the wardrobe? take spot boy attendance? — on one of those big Chopra movies and the little monster was born.

    Is that being harsh?

    He is a very successful young man. He started off with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which was a fun film with young people, even if it was a bit silly. And because he had such connections — his father was Yash Johar, his best friends were Shahrukh Khan and Kaajol — he could get what he wanted while he was making it. In his second film, the nauseating Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, he seemed to be playing it very safe. Let’s take every big star you can think of. Let’s take some smaller pretty people. Let’s put in Big Daddy Bachchan and let’s pair him with Big Mummy Bachchan and then mount a few songs in perfect colour-coordinated symmetry. Then he made Kal Ho Na Ho, which had Jaya Bachchan who is always a bit of a pain, but it impressed my America-returned friends who thought it was so cool that the stars drank the right kind of coffee and went to the Hamptons for weekends.

    (The Bachchans? They’re legacy too, part of Karan’s inheritance. His father made a clutch of movies of which the only ones you can remember are Dostaana (Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha vie for the hand of Zeenat Aman) and Agneepath (Amitabh throws away his best asset by faking another voice but manages a National Award). By those standards, he’d be small fry but Yash Johar was very close to Yash Chopra and that helped.)

    Then Karan wrote and produced Kaal which was a stupid horror movie which neither followed the classical rules of horror movies nor broke them with panache. The best scene was the first item song. The most frightening moment came when Shahrukh Khan grew pectoral muscles that have not been seen since.

    Now he’s made Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna which makes Kaal seem like a Wajda masterwork. To paraphrase a friend’s acerbic comment: “kank is meant to be mature and unconventional. So, if your spouse doesn’t give you enough attention (she’s earning money, bringing up a kid and has your mother living in her house), and you’ve hurt your leg (and presumably not got the kind of massive sports insurance they have in the US), you can hang out drinking nasty milk coffee-substitutes (American lattés) with someone else’s wife because she’s sulking because she can’t have children and can’t love the very nice man she decided to marry. Then you shag her. She leaves her husband soon after his dad dies and he’s got no one else.

    You have some rock song favoured by men with hairy arses and repeat scenes from khnh like a Basant Movies mythological reusing its sets. Throw in some white slappers for effect…”

    The earlier Karan Johar films were about nice people. Stars are always nice people. This is the assumption that you make in the Barjatya-Chopra-Johar (henceforth, the Barchopar) school of filmmaking. Even when they’re behaving like the most impossible shits — the Amitabh figure in Mohabbattein who drives his daughter to suicide, the Amitabh figure again in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham who squashes his wife and children each time they differ from him — the assumption is that we should like them.

    But there’s a problem. The three young Bachopars are impossibly regressive. All three of them have had every benefit their parents could confer on them. They’ve been abroad. They’ve had freedom to make choices about their marriages. They’ve breezed into Bollywood simply because of their dna. When they started thinking about their first films, all the goodwill that Papa had acquired began to be put into operation on their behalf. The best stars? Naturally. The best music directors? Of course. The best distributors to put the films into the best cinema halls? Phit-phaat.

    What do they then go and do? Karan Johar makes Archie comics. He does his own telly show, Koffee with Karan, and he has all his favourite stars in and he talks to them in the honeyed accents of a gurgling fan. He offers them coffee hampers with charming irony — oh look, we could buy the company that’s sponsoring this show but they’re going to give you an ittle-wittle chweechie hamper. And look, look, me the little boy with the peculiar voice and the odd looks who would never ever get a job on the telly if I weren’t my daddy’s son, look I’m on television. And look at all those poor geeks pressing their noses against the glass and trying to get into our charmed circle. Don’t they know what we cost, Shahrukh, even for an appearance of a few minutes?

    (Sidebar: if push comes to shove and Shahrukh splits with the Chopras, as seems to be imminent, will he also lose Karan? Or will love triumph?)

    When he decides to push the envelope in his next film, Karan sets it in New York. Gosh, talk about taking risks. Next, he puts in a whole bunch of stars including the by-now standard Bachchans (the little one dancing grotesquely, as he always does, because no one has found the right idiom for him to express himself; the older one now only surprising when he does not turn up in a movie). Then he makes it about marital infidelity, thus acknowledging his debt to the Chopras.

    He says he wants to take risks. He says he will no longer make feel-good films. What a pity. Karan Johar was a maker of Agra pedhas. For those of you who don’t know, those are the high-selling, sweet as syrup, completely homogenised, slightly green ones.

    Kundan Shah once said to me, “We all make the same film again and again. Guru Dutt made a film about a tormented poet in Pyaasa, about the tormented wife of a landowner in Saahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, about a tormented filmmaker in Kaagaz ke Phool. I made the same film [Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro] again and again.”

    It should be a warning to Karan Johar. He made his most successful films with cardboard cut-outs, animated Archie and Betty cartoons going through unreal, colour-harmonised romantic misery that works out in the last panel, sorry, scene. That’s what he ought to keep doing.

    Because trying to do something else makes the hollowness of the enterprise apparent. (Yes, Archie comics tend to be hollow, but then we don’t want them to be nuanced multi-layered reflections of the dark areas of the human soul). Another friend, who does not want to be quoted, said to me about the Barchopar school of film making (and it could apply to Karan as much as to anyone else): “They make these films about happy families because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to offer happy families to their parents.”

    Point taken.

  12. Jai,

    you are probably wrong about no one seeing a movie because Helen was in it.

    A guy I know saw "Evening in Paris" around 40 times just because he liked Helen's acting in the movie.

    John Matthew

  13. You write about lots of my favorite things - one is this book - I sent for it to England (I am in NY) and was not disappointed - just want to say it's a joy to find your sample paragraph and remember my delight in Jerry Pinto's writing - I think it's been long enough that I can go read it again.

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