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The iconic vamp

Among vamps, it was Helen alone who managed to be lovable. Poonam Saxena tells why.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2006 16:48 IST

Helen : The Life and Times of an H-Bomb
by Jerry Pinto
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Penguin India
Pages: 256
Price: Rs 275

Every nowand then, somebody in the office will announce brightly, “Let’s do a story on the death of the vamp in Hindi cinema!” The suggestion is usually met with an elaborate rolling of the eyes – a ‘have you been on Pluto for the last 20 years?’ kind of look. Because the vamp has been dead for at least as many years and the number of newspaper and magazine articles on the subject could probably fill as many books.

The plot is fairly standard; very briefly, it goes something like this: ‘In the beginning, in more idealistic and conventional times, the Hindi film heroine was chaste, good and dutiful. The vamp filled the space of the Bad Girl, who smoked, drank, liked the colour of money, showed off her body and seduced men. Over the years, as Indian society changed, so did the movies, and so did the heroines. They could now do many of the things the Bad Girl did and yet be acceptable to audiences. Squeezed out of her space, the vamp eventually vanished.’ One of the most important things a vamp did was dance erotically in front of men, and there is pretty much universal agreement that when it comes to the Hindi film cabaret, only one name reigns supreme – Helen, the subject of journalist Jerry Pinto’s book.

Pinto couldn’t get to meet Helen, so he clarifies right at the beginning that the book is not a biography, it’s about “the construction of Helen, the dancer.” My reaction is the same as that of all the people Pinto met: “Awwww.” As a book about Helen the dancer, it works. But as a book about ‘The Life and Times of an HBomb’ like the cover claims? Um.. not really.


Pinto goes into the tiniest details when it comes to Helen the dancer – the over-the-top clothes and makeup (enormous feathers, heaps of eyeshadow), the different kinds of songs she danced to (songs of self-adulation which basically said “Hey, I’m just too, too sexy, there’s no way in hell you can resist me”, to songs of seduction and mockery), the variety of settings (bars, nightclubs, etc), and of course, the way Helen danced (thrusting her breasts, writhing on the floor, stroking her own body). All this and more, Pinto analyses and dissects very well. But since we never get to know anything about Helen, there is a slightly flat, one-dimensional feel to the book. And after a point, all the details about the many nondescript films Helen acted in, lead to seriously glazed eyes.

The whole thing about Helen was that even though she was the vamp, you could never feel any distaste for her – the way you could (very easily) for her successors, like Bindu. Partly it was to do with the fact that in several of her films, Helen redeemed herself in the end, by having a change of heart (saving the hero, for instance) and of course, dying. But mostly, it was to do with Helen herself. You will always hear people say, “She never looked vulgar.” And it’s true, she didn’t, not even when she was thrusting her pelvis into the camera. Vamps like Padma Khanna (the striptease number in Johnny Mera Naam is the song that comes to mind instantly) or Bindu did. Pinto puts it down to the fact that you, as the audience, could actually feel the enjoyment Helen took in her superlative dancing. Or that she somehow managed to combine innocence with sensuality. Whatever the reason – and as the author, it is Pinto’s job to find out – the answer remains elusive. In the end, all you can say, very lamely, is: well, that was Helen.

Today, most heroines do sexy dance numbers all the time. But today, they’re called item numbers, not cabarets, and they are, alas, minus the Helen feathers and typical cabaret-type outfits. But most of the heroines also manage to evade the vulgarity/sleazy trap (would anyone have called Madhuri Dixit’s Dhak dhak number, or Aishwarya Rai’s Ishq kamina vulgar?). But I think that’s largely because these actresses have the respectability of being leading ladies, though that’s not a foolproof guarantee. (Mallika Sherawat is a good example of how the guarantee doesn’t always work.) But among the vamps, it was Helen and Helen alone who managed to be lovable. None of the others – from Kuldeep Kaur in the old black-and-white days to the grossly voluptuous Bindu – could achieve that. And that’s why Helen has a permanent place in the pantheon of Bollywood icons. And that’s why you should read Jerry Pinto’s well-written, affectionate book.

Even if he didn’t get to meet Helen. Awww.

First Published: Apr 03, 2006 18:19 IST