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Shall we dance?

She was a by-product of female liberation, wearing the pants, leotards and ostrich feathers. It’s Helen’s 69th birthday today. Khalid Mohamed writes on the Wren and Martin grammar book of the movie dance.Wish the original item queen on her birthday | Surfers' Response

entertainment Updated: Oct 24, 2008 13:00 IST
Khalid Mohamed

She would beget excitement wherever she travelled.. the studios, the premieres, the odd visit out to Beirut or Paris. Her nerve-ends tingled. She was a by-product of female liberation, wearing the pants, leotards and ostrich feathers. Hello Richardson, Helen Richardson.

I am unsure today about how H R will react..to yet another valentine. That’s her problem, not mine. We were friends to the point of knowing exactly when we had to take a trip to the dentist, which prayer to say and why, or what we expected to get from each other on X’mas day.

Today, Helen’s retreated further into her ivory tower, to show up only at functions involving her extended Khan family. She shows up in movies which don’t do her justice (so, what’s new?) and once she was in a play which vanished faster than it appeared.

Her biographer, Jerry Pinto, has still not met her.. though his ruminations on her fetched him the National Book Award. Rumours have it that she wanted a professional fee of Rs 11 lakh for the official rights to her story.

Oh well, whatever, I guess. She’s become Zen, with an Art of Living Kind of I’m-ok-hope-you’re-ok attitude. She works in movies once in a while which take her to countries she has never visited. Terrific. Not so terrific — she has always been people-phobic. Today, more so.

Damn let me say it, without futzing around, I miss her. I don’t meet her any more, I’m the new Jerry Pinto in her life.

First impressions
Yeah, so where does our story start? In the cool dark of a cinema hall of course. Helen the dancewalli, the cabaret queen, the leggy lady, led a screen life of exuberant exclamation marks, vast eyebrow raising question marks, and curiously inverted commas: the originator of the ‘item’ numbers moved as if every move, shake, rattle and roll were heavily italicised. She had no time for anything as half-hearted as a semi-colon. I doubt whether she believed, then, in the existence of full stops.

Helen was the Wren and Martin grammar book of the movie dance. Her guru was said to be Cuckoo but when they danced together, in black-and-white, in Yahudi, it was plain that the disciple had overtaken her guiding force.

Helen became the gypsy woman. The courtesan. The clubbing Chin Chin choo. The Arabic belly bombshell. The Kathak Nartaki. The fisherwoman in a country liquor bar. The gangster’s moll in a gold biscuit den. Hell, she was everyone.

The names of the movies dim, her dances don’t. Without her terpsichorean tha thaiya, where would be the middle eastern riffs of Shanker Jaikishen, the thunder drumbeats of Laxmikant-Pyarelal or the cool pop-rock-jazz medleys of R D Burman?

At times, Asha Bhosle has cribbed that she was mostly assigned to playback the hotsy totsy Helen songs while badi didi Lata Mangeshkar warbled the more respectful duets, lullabies and solo cries of plaint enacted by the leading ladies.

Cult figure
If you ask me, Asha Bhosle doesn’t understand, even in hindsight, that she majorly lucked out, taking the mike to cite just one of the instances.. Piya tu ab to aaja.
The Helen/Asha Bhosle songs are a musicologist’s delight. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it? Now, it’s so easy to make her a cult figure, isn’t it? Sure, some of her “acting acting” performances are recalled by the nostalgiaphiles.

Like she was the murdered castaway in Gumnaam, a sweet-tempered Burmese soul in Lahu ke Do Rang and the poised beloved of Joy Mukherjee in Hum Hindustani?

Fact is that she must have featured in over 700 films but how many of them would she personally like to be remembered for? Precious few.. though she will dip into the film biz homily, “I got much more than I deserved, the film industry has been very good to me.”

Has it? The first time I ever saw her at a moviedom function was when she was at the peak of her form. I was in knee-pants when she walked in to the wedding reception at the Cooperage grounds of Yash and Hiroo Johar.

Helen was wearing a blood red chiffon sari dotted with white furry balls. She oozed glamour but she looked as tense as a captive butterfly. She was accompanied by producer P N Arora, her good friend.

Years later, Helen split with the producer who had cast a shadow on her waltzing eyes. She never brought up his name when I knew her, yes there were murmurs that she’d had a tough, traumatic time after the split.

Helen went through a harrowing phase, rooming out at the already crowded homes of her few friends in the Mumbai suburbs. There was no address where she could be contacted.

All in the family
Morsels of tittle tattle were served by the film magazines. She was being seen in the company of script maestro Salim Khan, he was recommending her for roles in the Salim-Javed projects (Don, Imaan Dharam).

Helen was made out to be a homebreaker and as suddenly, registered as the second wife of Salim Khan. Helen was accepted as part of the Khan family by the script writer’s wife Salma and her four children Salman, Arbaaz, Sohail and Alvira.

Helen, then, lived in commodious apartment at Somerset House, Breach Candy, her miyan at Galaxy Apartments, Bandra seaface. I came to know Salim Khan.
He was in the wilderness on aborting his writing partnership with Javed Akhtar. Salim Khan sought an interview when no one was interviewing him. He was pleased with the printed outcome.

Almost as a return gift, I was introduced to Helen at Somerset House. “Please don’t interview me, you can write whatever you want, whenever you want.” Good enough, see that’s what I’m doing.

Changes, changes
For five years and some more, Helen became a part of my house. She would rush to the aid of my ailing grandmother who stubbornly refused to take medicines and tonics. They’d go off carpet-furniture-mango shopping.

Grandma, once, advised her, “Never trust a man completely.” I was livid with grans, whatever did she mean? Helen shut me up by saying sweetly, “It’s between us girls dearie, you don’t poke your nose into our chit chats.” Fine, I left it at that.

Then the inevitable had to happen, I suppose. I didn’t like Salim’s script for Ramesh Sippy’s Akayla and said so. After that it was never the same again. Grans passed away, Helen stopped visiting. The come-over-for-dinners became less frequent, the conversations and arguments more unpleasant.

No more invitations
Helen shifted from Somerset to an apartment in Bandra. She didn’t give me her new phone number. I wasn’t the sweet kid she knew any more, she wasn’t the pal I knew.

I did meet her on and off, like at a birthday bash for Salim where she did the fox trot with me (a fan’s fantasy come true). She talked about going through a meditation course and emphasised that she was at peace with herself. Very very happy, no arguments, no frowns, no, “Just shut tup!”

It wasn’t the Helen I’d known. The question is: Why should she be the Helen I know? I am no longer invited to her X’mas, Id or Diwali evenings.

So what can I do but say hey, they don’t make them like you any more.. the woman in the red sari with white furry balls.