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Helen: "Queen of the Nautch Girls" of Bollywood

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helen, helen jairag richardson, dancer, bollywood, hindi movies, indian movies, india

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helen, helen jairag richardson, dancer, bollywood, hindi movies, indian movies, india

helen, helen jairag richardson, dancer, bollywood, hindi movies, indian movies, india
Any Hindi movie-goer, elderly or young, knows her name. Starting from around mid 1950ís till the end of the 1970ís she dominated as the dancing girl of Hindi cinemas. Known only by her first name, Helen, this "Queen of the Nautch Girls" kept the audience fully entertained and satisfied their expectations of a great dance number in the movies for a full quarter of a century. I have no doubt that during her peak years, the story writers of Hindi films created the role of a dancer in the movie with Helen in mind.

Helen dancing in 1971 hit movie Caravan.
Song: "Piya Tu Ab To Aaja". Singer: Asha Bhosle.

Helen was born on October 21, 1939 in Burma. She was the daughter of an Anglo-Burmese father and a Burmese mother. Her fatherís name was Jairag. After her fatherís untimely death during the Second World War, her mother married an Englishman named Richardson. Helen took the last name of her stepfather and thus Helenís full name became Helen Jairag Richardson. Helen had two brothers and has a sister.

Helen dancing in 1967 hit movie Jewel Thief.
Song: "Baithe Hain Kya Uske Paas". Singer: Asha Bhosle.

Helenís family fled to Bombay (now called Mumbai) in 1942 when Japan attacked Burma. Soon the familyís financial needs forced Helen to drop out of school and start looking for a job. In those days a family friend named Cuckoo was a well known dancer in Hindi films. Cuckoo helped Helen to learn dancing and find work as a chorus dancer in Hindi movies.

Helen in the 1978 hit movie Don.
Song: "Yeh Mera Dil". Singer: Asha Bhosle.

Who at the time knew that Helen would one day introduce a whole new genre of dancing - sexy cabaret and belly dancing - in Bollywood movies? Though Helen has done various other filmi dances, and also did some acting roles, people remember her mainly as a cabaret and bar dancer of unusual grace and skill. Her seductive eye expressions, her broad smile, her characteristic shaking of chest, jiggling of belly, thrusting of pelvis, swaying of hips, and throwing of legs could not be duplicated by later dancer-actresses who tried to be like her. Helen introduced this style of sensuous dancing in Hindi movies and she will be remembered for long for this form of art.

Helen's superb performance in the movie Inteqam (1969).
(One of her career best.)
Song: "Aa Jaane Jaan". Singer: Lata Mangeshkar.

Though Helen got her first breaks in movies in Shabistan and Awaara (1951), she did not have her first real hit until Shakti Samantaís Howrah Bridge (1958) in which she performed with the song "Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu" sung by Geeta Dutt. (See video below.) Offers started pouring in after her success in Howrah Bridge and Helen quickly established herself as the first ever and unchallenged seductive dancer of the Hindi cinemas. Her dancing style was unique and the audience quickly developed a taste for it and expected to see her in almost all major productions of Mumbai. The film makers also realized this fact and they almost invariably included Helen in their movieís cast hoping for a box-office hit. Helen often, as a dancer, did contribute to the movieĎs financial success.

Helen's first hit performance in the movie Howrah Bridge (1958).
Song: "Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo". Singer: Geeta Dutt.

Helenís peak years were from 1960ís to 70ís after which, even though she continued to appear in movies till the late 1990ís and made occasional appearances until as late as 2010, her demand started going down with age catching up on her. By some estimates, in her entire career, Helen made nearly 700 films (some in other Indian languages). This number alone, which probably is a world record, goes to show her great demand in Hindi films and audience appreciation of her performance.

Helen in the Telugu movie Pilla Piduga (1972).

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Some of Helenís memorable performances are in movies like Junglee (1961), Gunga-Jumna (1961), Teesri Manzil (1966), Inteqam (1969), Caravan(1971), Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972), Sholay (1975), Kala Sona (1975), Inkaar (1977), and Don (1978). She, in many of her performances, made the Indian movie-goers go crazy with whistles and shouts in the movie theatres. Helen, through her seductive dancing, produced more intoxication than the wide array of whisky bottles she usually danced around.

Helen and Parveen Babi in the movie Kala Sona (1975).
Song: "Koi Aaya Aane Bhi De". Singer: Asha Bhosle.

Helenís acting did not really catch on though she did acting roles in several films. She played mostly vamps and vixens and established her career in the Mumbai film industry mainly as an item dancer. People usually remember Helen as a cabaret dancer, belly dancer, and bar-room dancer. For sexiness she is often referred to as H-bomb. Helen very often wore revealing, sexy costumes in her dance numbers showing a lot of "skin". But the truth is she almost always wore very thin, tight, skin colored or sheer body suits underneath her skimpy costume to create that skin revealing illusion!

Helen and Vyjayanthimala in Dr. Vidya (1962).
Song: "Aaye Haaye Dilruba". Singers: Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle.

A couple of her dance numbers deserve special mention. In Dr. Vidya (1962) Helen performed competitive dancing with another of our Indian movieís dancing diva, Vyjayanthimala. That number was interesting and drew a lot of attention from the audience as well as the dance pundits. (See video above.) The next dance competition between Vyjayanthimala and Helen happened in the movie Prince (1969). (See video below.)

Helen, Vyjayanthimala and Shammi Kapoor in Prince (1969).
Song: "Muqabala Humse Naa Karo". Singers: Lata, Asha & Rafi.

Another of Helenís memorable performance was in Ramesh Sippyís 1975 blockbuster movie Sholay. Helenís remarkable performance as a gypsy dancer in Sholay shows her mastery of the genre done with superb grace, nimble movements, and a wide smile befitting the plot of the movie.

Helen dancing as a gypsy dancer Sholay (1975).
Song: "Mehbooba Mehbooba". Singer: R.D.Burman.

In 1973, Merchant Ivory Productions created Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls - a 30 minute documentary about Helen. The documentary introduced Helen to the Western world as the undisputed "Nautch Girl" of Bombay films.

Glimpses of Helen's famous typewriter dance in
Merchant Ivory Production's movie Bombay Talkie (1970).
The other two main actors in the video clip are Jennifer Kendal
and Shashi Kapoor.

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Unfortunately, from around mid to late seventies, younger dancer-actresses started appearing on the Hindi film frontier and Helen started finding herself in tough competition. Script writer Salim Khan helped her get good roles in some of the movies he was co-scripting with Javed Akhtar. This landed Helen to a challenging role in Mahesh Bhatt's film Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979), for which she won a Filmfare Best Supporting Actress award. Helen received the prestigious Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 and the Government of Indiaís civilian award, Padma Shri, in 2009.

After her failed marriage with film director P.N. Arora, Helen married Salim Khan in 1980 to become his second wife.

Helen has retired from the silver screen for a number of years, but made a few "guest appearances" in 1999 and 2000. In Mohabbatein (2000), she played head of a girls' school, who was pulled out onto a dance floor and surprised everyone with her lively dancing. She also made a special appearance as Salman Khan's mother (his stepmother in real life) in the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).

Helen was coached for many of her dance numbers by Bollywoodís famous choreographer Oscar Unger. Helen was one of Oscar Ungerís favorite dancers and Oscar was the man who made Helen sway her hips to the maddening delight of men in her "Mungda Mungda" number in Inkaar (1977). (See video below.) Helen was known for her seductive dancing. But her steps, body movements, and nimbleness could not have been possible without utmost self-discipline, purpose, and focus. Body flexibility is extremely important for dancers. In the Merchant Ivory Productionsí documentary mentioned earlier, Helen demonstrated some of the difficult yoga exercises she performed every morning to keep her body fit and flexible.

Helen driving everybody crazy in Inkaar (1977).
Song: "Mungda Mungda". Singer: Usha Mangeshkar.

During the 60ís and 70ís, Helen regularly worked two shifts everyday. Her day began at 6:30 in the morning with 30 minutes of yoga exercises and ended at 10 p.m. with a couple of hours of lunch break between 1 and 3. She made sure she did not do too many late nights, and ate carefully to maintain her health and shape. Hard work and self-discipline were the key to her success. She rose to the top slowly but steadily. Trying to climb the ladder too fast was dangerous, she said, because that increased oneís chances of falling down.

Several younger actresses like Padma Khanna, Jayashree T, Bindu, Aruna Irani, and Kalpana Iyer tried to fit into Helenís shoes after she retired. But none of them were as successful as Helen. Helen stayed in Hindi cinemas for about 30 years and was the queen of her field for at least 25 years. No other dancer-actresses that followed her could match her success.

Helen-ji, we will always very fondly remember you. Thanks for everything you have done to keep us entertained for so many years.

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Helen fans, please do not miss the following sites:

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