Bollywood >> Helen >> Reviews

Lawrence Liang in Biblio

The detective in film noir is typically an outsider whose moral indifference to a crime or a crisis allows him an entry into the subterranean worlds of seemingly happy families. Like many of the films that Helen acted in, Jerry Pinto’s biography has a noirish feel to it. Beginning with his own elusive and unsuccessful attempts to speaking to Helen, Pinto is forced to play the role of the detective investigating the death of a phenomenon called Helen. While Helen may have been resurrected in her new respectable avatar as the dancing grandmother in Khamoshi or as the mother in law of Salman Khan, Pinto is interested in finding out more about the woman with a mysterious past and his investigations takes him and us to the many secrets beneath the calm of the Hindu Undivided Family of Hindi film.
Like the proverbial private eye, Pinto has a few clues that he begins with and his starting point is the fact that ‘it wasn’t quite lust that Helen aroused’. The lustful gaze of the male audience for Pinto is merely the red herring in the plot, and his focus instead is on the fact that ‘Helen was the desire that you need not be embarrassed about’.
The central concern for Pinto is Why Helen. After all there have been many mangled bodies scattered in the erotic landscape of Hindi films. A Bindu here, An Aruna irani there and yet in the middle of it lies the mystery of Helen, the vamp with the bullet in her golden heart.
By now, the official story of Helen is well known and is often capable of being summed up in a whole host of clichés such as ‘the original item number’, the greatest vamp in Indian Cinema and a dancer like none other. Sometimes these clichés are buttressed by a few biographical details: Helen: A refugee of French-Burmese parentage and entered the film industry in 1951, as a chorus dancer in films who made it big with performance in the song Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu in O.P. Nayyar’s hit film, Howrah Bridge. As a journalist Pinto might have been satisfied with telling the story of Helen the working actress and dancer who struggled to find her place as a footnote in the archives of Hindi film.

But as an investigator, Pinto has to move beyond the clichés and the official reports, and find himself wading through the unofficial archives stored in the bars, night clubs and cabarets of the cinematic city in the sixties and seventies. Pinto takes us through a vibrant journey far beyond the world of clichés and allows us a peek into the secret spaces of Hindi cinema where many guilty pleasures and transgressions reside. This unofficial archive is not recorded in faded family albums, and is more likely to be recorded in police documents and court records. Consider for instance the following extract of an FIR from a case in the seventies that involved the famous cabaret dancer Temiko. “The artist was Accused No. 1, Miss. Joyce, also called Temiko. We are concerned with her cabaret show in this case. The prosecution alleged that Temiko, accused No. 1 was dressed in a transparent gown. She was smoking when she entered the hall accompanied by cabaret music. Spotlight was on her. All other lights were off; she danced for a few minutes. Then she started moving around the table shouting aloud. She nudged various customers at their backside and blew smoke on their heads. She approached the customers in the dance hall of Blue Nile to remove her clothes”.
This legal document almost mirrors Helen’s space in Hindi Cinema: The amoral outsider whose pleasure sits uneasily with the established legal and moral order within the film and outside of it as well. Pinto’s search for Helen is at the same time a journey into the nights of Hindi cinema, where the action takes place in a cabaret and girls go by the names of Suzie, Jenny and Rita. Pinto reveals that the reason why Helen the vamp with the golden heart had to die is in order to restore the moral order of the Hindu Undivided film family. (She almost always fails, which was perhaps the secret of her success. In failing she kept the moral universe intact”). In an interview Pinto says that While Bollywood was willing to make secular gestures by representing Muslims as positive characters, Parsis and Catholics could easily be caricatured because they were ‘Westernised’ — they did not watch Hindi cinema. In that sense, therefore, yes, I felt that I was an outsider who was looking at another outsider”.
Helen’s status as the outsider enabled a world of narrative and extra narrative possibilities which freed Hindi cinema from its boring interior spaces and opened out various spaces of pleasurable transgressions. The book teases out the spaces of transgression that Helen occupies in a reflexive and analytical manner. As the ‘other’ of the chaste Indian woman Helen’s sexuality was an onscreen transgression which could was sustained by the ethnic and racial ambiguity that marked Helen. This ambiguity enabled her to move in and out of many identities ranging from the generic Anglo Indian woman to gangsters moll, a Spanish courtesan and even a Chinese spy. At the same time watching Helen was a private invitation to a collective transgression by the audience.
In an incredible paragraph that contrasts the pedagogic moral universe of the state with the domain of pure pleasure Pinto observes “Looking back, it seems odd that Helen had such a hold on my generation. I grew up in the seventies — the decade when Helen’s career was already in decline — and like most middle-class boys, I was allowed one film a month at the theatres by parents suspicious of its moral and aesthetic values (in that order). Helen could not invade my space through television, either. Hindi films had exactly four hours a week on the air. There was the three-hour pre-censored film on Sundays, the half hour of uninterrupted film songs that was Chhaayageet and another half hour of a film interview, Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, conducted by a bubbly, harmless child-star-turned-character-artiste, Tabassum. This was all the government would allow on Doordarshan by way of bread and circuses. The rest of the time, we were ‘educated’ on such improving topics as the use of copper sulphate on the farms of the hinterland or we watched kabaddi tournaments played in deserted stadia”
Thus Pinto reveals the secret behind why Helen has to die, and it is so that we may return guiltless to our half hour of Chhaayageet.
As a book, Helen: The life and times of an H-Bomb also manages to bridge the film theory/ journalism divide. The problem with most film theorists lies in their inability to convey an enthusiasm about he films which they see, and the problem with film journalists is their inability to engage in any depth with the films that they write about. Jerry Pinto’s Helen: The life and Times of an H-Bomb successfully combines a film buff’s pure thrill and enthusiasm with a series of insightful analysis that would make any film theorist proud.


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