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03 May 2011

The Magic of Helen

How do you catalogue Helen? Throughout the 60s, there was nary a movie that did not have a stage / nightclub / cabaret  number that showcased Helen's oomph and dancing prowess. It is sad that as the decade went on, her dresses became more scanty, the moves more risque as film-makers tried to cash in on her star value and slotted her as the vamp. But what made Helen 'great' was that she did those moves with grace and dignity. It is easy to forget that she came in as a dancer and there were many different songs that she could, and did, dance. Her range varied from quawwalis, kotha numbers, folk dances, westernised numbers - you name it, she has danced them.

I went searching for songs that were not typically vampish numbers, and found some real treasures.  So many songs that may not be the typical ones that one remembers when one thinks of Helen, but nevertheless are a testimony to her prowess as a dancer. She was also fortunate in having songs that were written especially for her, sung by mainline performers such as Lata, Asha and Geeta Dutt. 

It would be easy enough to collate a list of her cabaret numbers; the only difficulty there would be to decide what to leave out. But I did not bargain for the same difficulty when trying to put together a list of her non-night club numbers. The list is in no particular order, except that I either liked the song, or there was an unusual combination at work or both.  

1. Cha Cha Cha (1964)
Ek Chameli ke mandve tale - Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhonsle
Probably the only film where Helen was a heroine, the film was directed by Chandrasekhar who also played the hero (I have to ask WHY?). The music was by Iqbal Quereshi. And before you ask, no, this is not a period film; it is a dream sequence. The song almost (but not quite) makes up for having to watch Chandrasekhar as Prince Salim.

2. Woh Kaun Thi (1964)
Chodkar tere pyar ka daman - Mahendra Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar

Helen in a supporting role in one of the finest mysteries of the time. Before playing guessing games of whether *she* is a ghost or not, dead or not, Manoj Kumar (Dr Anand) has a lover. Who, of course, once she sings hum ko dar hai ke teri baahon mein hum khushi se na aaj mar jaaye has to die. No? 

Still, she made way for an absolutely stunning Sadhana. And she had the consolation of two really good songs, even though she is only dancing to one, and the relief of not having to be in love with Manoj Kumar. Win-win.

3. Parasmani (1963)
Ooi ma ooi ma yeh kya ho gaya - Lata Mangeshkar

In a film that boasted Hasta hua noorani chehra, Woh jab yaad aaye, Roshan tumhi se duniya, all picturised on a completely wooden Mahipal and an equally expressionless Gitanjali, it was heartening to see a lively, beauteous Helen dance her way through Ooi ma Ooi ma, yeh kya ho gaya with such grace and energy. Made me wish she had been the heroine instead. What a waste of a wonderful Laxmikant-Pyarelal score! And it was their debut too.

4. Half Ticket (1962)
Woh ik nigaah kya mili – Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar

A stage song to end all stage songs. Kishore Kumar on the run from Pran, begs Helen to  save him. In verse, yet. Helen, quite quick on the uptake, absorbs him into the performance. Hear this song for Lata's almost-operatic vocal calisthenics. She sounds like a bird on the high notes, and is almost indistinguishable from the instrument. One of Salil Choudhury's complicated tunes that sound so simple because of Lata's control over the notes. And watch it for the inspired madness that Kishoreda and Helen bring onto the stage, while Pran joins in, also in disguise. Helen does not miss a step and Lata does not miss a note. And poor Pran ends up being tied to a stage prop while Kishore escapes.

5. Afsana (1966) 
Kitni hai albeli - Asha Bhonsle

When I had first heard this song, and heard that it was from Afsana, I assumed it was the BR Chopra / Ashok Kumar one. Imagine my surprise when I saw this for the first time on Youtube and saw it was in colour (the BR Chopra Afsana is a Black &White film), with Padmini and Pradeep Kumar. A quick search of IMDB gave me the information that this was a later movie, even though this film also had Ashok Kumar. However, I had no further information on the film (the IMDB does not have a review), until Google led me to this.

While the story sounded rather convoluted on first reading, this song is lovely; Helen is gorgeous, Padmini is willing to be entertained, and Pradeep Kumar looks like he has swallowed a cockroach. F-U-N!

6. Dr Vidya (1962)
Aye haye dilruba – Geeta Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar

This is here simply because it is a joy to see two talented dancers try to outdo each other. SD Burman's music set off by Majrooh Sultanpuri's lyrics, this was not just a competition between western and Indian cultures (no prizes for guessing which one wins in the end), it was a competition between the classically trained Vyjayanthimala and the 'westernised' Helen, and between Geeta Dutt's and Asha Bhonsle's voices. It really did not matter who 'won' the competition (obviously, the 'heroine' has to win), the audience (and the listeners) were the clear winners.  

7. Prince (1969)
Muqabla humse na karo – Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Mohammed Rafi
Another competition song. Same culprits. Only, they are not only competing against each other, they are also competing *together* against with Shammi Kapoor. So you have Vyjayanthimala dance Bharatnatyam, Kathak and Kathakali; and Helen dances a Jazz- western dance (Bollywood style), the flamenco and the belly dance. And Shammi Kapoor, well, he dances 'Shammi Kapoor' style, which is rather graceful but this was one song where the poor man was superfluous. Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle and Mohammed Rafi do the vocal honours, music is by Shankar Jaikishen.

8. Yahudi (1958)
Bechain dil khoi si nazar - Geeta Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar 

An interesting composition by Shankar Jaikishen, the song featured Cuckoo, then the reigning dancer and Helen, who was her protege. It's a dance in the market place and starts off with two magicians conjuring the girls up. This was one of Helen's earliest movies (she looks so young and so gloriously pretty, I am amazed that no one signed her as a heroine), the song was a big hit and helped her scale new heights as a dancer.

9. Halaku (1956)
Aji chale ao - Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle
I dithered between this and the Husn jawan, ishq jawan number from Changez Khan. This won out simply because this had more of Helen, accompanied though she is by Minoo Mumtaz. And a bearded, turbanned Pran who still looked so handsome that it is worth a watch. I am assuming that some rescue operations are in effect here, since the girls seem to be dancing in a prison of some sort. 

And of course, Pran has to be villain, though he is playing the title role here. Meena Kumari and Ajit (yes, *that* Ajit of 'Loin' fame) star as the (ehem) star-crossed lovers; though I guess being a Hindi movie of that time (and without Dilip Kumar), it all ended happily everafter. I had a VCD that seemed to have had a rat edit the film - huge portions were missing, so I had to play guessing games. Shankar- Jaikishen score a mixed bag of tunes. Mohammed Rafi's solo is the best song of the lot.

10. Ustadon ke Ustad (1963)
Mere dil ko jiski talaash - Asha Bhonsle, Mohammed Rafi

Okay, what's not to like? It features two of my favourites. A dapper Johnny walker lip-syncing to Mohammed Rafi, a graceful-as-usual Helen and a rather pleasant score by Ravi.

11. Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958)
Hum tumhare hain zara ghar se nikalkar dekho - Asha Bhonsle, Sudha Malhotra

In a crazy film that is already peppered by songs, what is one more? And SD Burman rises to the occasion for a brief that I am sure must have been 'one song in the villain's den'. Cuckoo and Helen, dancing for a suave KN Singh.

12. Sapan Suhane (1961)
Naam mera Nimmo – Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey, Dwijen Mukherjee

Balraj Sahni and Geeta Bali are getting married, Helen is dancing up a storm, ably supported by Bhagwan and Chandrasekhar and Salilda is having fun. Lata is at her peak, and Manna da and Dwijen provide the thrust and foil - one of the best get-up-and-dance songs I have heard in a long time.  Bonus? You get a glimpse of Geeta's bashful eyes smiling behind her veil, and Balraj Sahni's answering grin. 

13. Gumnaam (1965)
Is duniya mein jeena ho to - Lata Mangeshkar

Helen won a Best Supporting Actress award for her role in this whodunnit based on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. In a scene where she sets out to relieve the tension that is evident, she dances free-style, keeping her moves playful and almost unchoreographed. There is a freedom to her movements, her innate grace keeping her in step with Lata's exhortation to let sorrows pass and enjoy life while it can be enjoyed. Watch Pran join in, matching her step for step, while Madan Puri and Nanda respond to her optimism almost against their will. 

14. Thakur Jarnail Singh (1966)
Hum tere bin jee na sakenge hum  -  Asha Bhonsle
Another one of Helen's rare songs where she is not dancing. I haven't seen this movie though the song used to play on Vividh Bharti quite often. She seems to be playing a supporting role since IMDB also lists Indrani Mukherjee in the cast. Dara Singh is the hero. The music was by Ganesh who assisted Laxmikant-Pyarelal during Mr. X in Bombay. It is rather interesting to note that the film had only female playback (the three Mangeshkar sisters - Lata, Asha and Usha), and that while Asha sang for Helen, Bela Bose lip-synced to Lata.

15. Ghunghat (1960)
Dil na kahin lagaana - Asha Bhonsle
In a Rajshri movie with a plethora of stars - Bharat Bhushan, Pradeep Kumar, Rehman, Pratima Devi, Bina Rai, and Asha Parekh, this Helen dance number on stage probably comes as a relief.  There is infinite enthusiasm and thankfully, equal grace in the dance to this rambunctious composition by Ravi.

This does but partial justice to an artiste who redefined the 'item number' in Hindi movies long before that term was coined. In my bid to find songs where directore showcased her dancing prowess, I realised there were many 'night-club' songs which deserve their own list. 

So, as they say in filmdom, watch out for Part 2...


  1. I think it was Beth (the blogger at Beth Loves Bollywood) who said that "Helen is sui generis". So true - she's in a class apart! No wonder the largest bit of cinematic art that I own - a 24" lobby card - is of Helen. I simply adore her!

    And your list does Helen a lot of justice - some wonderful songs here (and I hadn't known 'Ik chameli ke mandve tale' was a dream sequence - I did wonder why a period film would be called Cha Cha Cha!)

    Here's another unusual Helen song where she's being the demure miss rather than the brash nightclub dancer:


  2. Madhu, thanks for the Neeli neeli ghata song - I am beginning to realise, much to my dismay, that the more I dig, the more songs I find that I haven't heard before (Neeli... is a case in point). Of course, there is also the 'A-Ha' moment when you find you have so many more songs to give you pleasure!

    Helen is such a gentle soul. I had the good fortune of meeting her while I was working, and found her very unassuming. I returned even more in love with her than I had been. :)

  3. Madhu, thanks for the Neeli neeli ghata song - I am beginning to realise, much to my dismay, that the more I dig, the more songs I find that I haven't heard before (Neeli... is a case in point). Of course, there is also the 'A-Ha' moment when you find you have so many more songs to give you pleasure!

    Helen is such a gentle soul. I had the good fortune of meeting her while I was working, and found her very unassuming. I returned even more in love with her than I had been. :)

  4. Anu, what a wonderful list! I didn't know Helen had danced so many non-cabaret numbers! And she was so absolutely beautiful, wasn't she?

  5. You actually MET Helen??! I am so envious - I would give anything to be able to meet her and tell her how much I adore her! :-)

  6. Yes, Madhu, I did. :) Back in another lifetime when I was a journalist and was sent quite regularly to interview denizens of filmland. (Our editor at the time was Pritish Nandy. 'nuff said.) And she had such a shy smile when you compliment her (well, I was almost gushing).

  7. Yes. I was quite surprised too. I grew up seeing her in those feathers and scanty costumes. I think I came across Ooi ma Ooi ma yeh kya ho gaya again somewhere in the early nineties. And I was shocked to see that Helen was the dancer. I had seen Parasmani before when I was a wee child, but I hadn't recognised Helen as the dancer.

    She still *is* beautiful!


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