Looking Back at the Life of Cabaret Queen Helen, as She Turns 77

As Helen turns 77, Khalid Mohammed reminisces the cabaret queen’s golden days and the mellower ones that followed. 

6 min read
A look at the life of Cabaret Queen Helen over the years.

“Dearie,” she whispered, “do you want to know a secret?”

“Yes, yes,” I grinned conspiratorially, expecting a scandalous morsel of information. “Do tell, Helenji.”

That turned out to be a professional secret. Shifting closer to me barely a barge-pole’s distance away, she revealed,

“Every girl should flirt with the man who’s handling the camera. And not with the hero, producer or the director. If she makes the photographer feel wanted, he’ll make her look gorgeous, giving her an edge over the leading lady.”

Oh, I wasn’t quite aware of that. In the looks department, film personalities I know, depend entirely on their stylists, costume-wallas and make-up crew. So, was I disappointed by the lack of a tell-all tidbit from her private life? Nope, I was just amused.

Cinematographer-friendly is the way to be. Okay, so that explains why Indian cinema’s Queen of a 1,001 dances, looked consistently alluring, her face unlined, holding an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile while her hour-glass figure twirled through cabarets, mujras, rock-‘n’-rollas and what-cha-cha-cha-you.

Publicity still from <i>Helen: The Queen of Nautch Girls</i> (Courtesy: Merchant-Ivory Productions)
Publicity still from Helen: The Queen of Nautch Girls (Courtesy: Merchant-Ivory Productions)

Helen: The Kickstarter of Item Numbers

Curiously, her Marlene Dietrich legs, belly dancer midriff and decolletage were cloaked by a skin-toned gauzy fabric. Which is why, till date, the verdict goes, “She could be super sexy but never vulgar.”

Lionised as a living legend only in retrospect by the mandarins as well as the masses during her terpsichorean years in the studios, she was patronisingly anointed as a va va voom vamp, the kickstarter of ‘item numbers.’

Consequently, from the mid-1950s to the turn of the ‘60s, Helen Jairag Richardson, born to an Anglo-Indian father and a Burmese mother, was as much of a mandatory component of the movies, as a reel is to a projector. Then followed an eclipse, with Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi and Rekha taking over the cabaret interludes. She was no longer needed in the demand-and-supply mandi of moviebiz.

In addition, turbulence hit her private life to the extent that she was rendered homeless and had to room it out with empathetic friends, before she found comfort with scriptwriter Salim Khan, who married her at the risk of disturbing his family life.

After some hiccups, she was accepted by the Khan household, culminating in a rare happy ending in which she could partake of the glory of her stepson Salman Khan.

One Can Never Catch Hold of Her

The Mona Lisa smile has returned to that magnolia-complexioned face. Inevitably perhaps, she has put on weight, a tremble has crept into her breath-light voice and her disposition is reclusive and suffers no intruders.

Try calling her on her landline, and she answers in an imitation of a robotic domestic help, “Sorry, memsaab baahar. Gaya. Tumhara naam? Koi message?” Even if there is one, the message is ignored as if it were one of those pesky offers of a bank loan at a discounted interest.

On Helen’s 77th birthday, it would be futile to reach out to her on her landline or cellphone, unless you want to hear, “Memsaab baahar gaya..blah blah.” She lives in a Bandra apartment, a stone’s throw away from the Khan family, and you can bet your boots that she will be enricled by designer bouquets, clusters of balloons and gift hampers galore.

A vintage portrait of Helen in the studio. (Photo from the collection of Khalid Mohammed)
A vintage portrait of Helen in the studio. (Photo from the collection of Khalid Mohammed)

There was a phase, though, when no one sent her flowers anymore, with the exception of Mithun Chakraborty. The birthday girl would sigh fondly,

He never forgets. Every year on November 21st, I get a huge basket of orchids from Mithun, the first thing in the morning. He’s such a dear. 

Life’s coming up with red roses now. Helen has become zen, the after-effects of assimilating the Art of Living. Occasionally, she fetches up on the screen as a benign aunt, mom or dadi.

“If the shoot’s in a place I’ve never seen, I’m tempted,” she concedes.“So, I grabbed the chance to travel to Budapest for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.”

As an ageing actress down on her luck in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, she was excellent. That she can be a capable actress was proved only sporadically in her prime: as the about-to-be murdered Miss Kitty Kelly in Gumnaam, an oriental woman who rescues an Indian soldier in Mahesh Bhatt’s Lahu ke Do Rang, and the poised beloved to Joy Mukherjee in Hum Hindustani. Bring up her acting abilities and she’ll dip into the homily,

“Shhhh. I got much more than what I deserved” She didn’t.

Helen from Sanjay Khan’s <i>Abdullah</i>. (Photo from the collection of Khalid Mohammed)
Helen from Sanjay Khan’s Abdullah. (Photo from the collection of Khalid Mohammed)

Helen became the Wren and Martin of movie dance. Circa 1958, when she had danced with her benefactor Cuckoo in Yahudi (Bechain dil khoyee si nazar) and Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (Hum tumhare hain), the disciple had clearly outclassed her guru.

The shishya became the night clubbing Chin Chin Chu, a feisty fisherwoman in a hooch den, a moll to ceaseless gangsters and an evening’s diversion for Gabbar Singh. Hell, she was every woman.

Every nostalgiaphile is entitled to have his or her favourite Helen number, ranging from Aa jaane jaan (Inteqam), Piya tu ab to aa ja (Caravan) and Mungda main gud ki dali (Inkaar) to Mehbooba mehbooba (Sholay) and Yeh mera dil pyaar ka deewana (Don). Ask her about her most accomplished dance, and she’ll instantly cite the mujra set piece in Dilip Kumar’s Gunga Jumna. “For once, I could show that I’m good at kathak too,” she emphasises.

Helen from the song <i>Aa Jaane Jaan</i>. (Courtesy: YouTube)
Helen from the song Aa Jaane Jaan. (Courtesy: YouTube)

My Surrogate Family

Emphatically again, she’ll let you know, “I’m not very outgoing, I don’t go out much.” The first time I glimpsed her was at one such rare outing. I was in my knee-pants then, thrilled at the chance to star gaze. She was at the wedding reception of the widely-adored Yash and Hiroo Johar.

Dressed in a flaming red chiffon sari pinned with furry white snowflakes (or so they seemed to a kiddo’s eyes), Helen exuded glamour. Yet somehow, she looked as tense as a captive butterfly. She was accompanied by her long-time companion, producer PN Arora. Years later, after they parted ways she would never bring up his name. Not even a murmur.

In my capacity as a journalist, for five years or so I did see Helen in close-up. However, there was a caveat:

Please don’t ever interview me, you can write whatever you want, whenever. I hope you don’t mind, dearie.

Too late, I couldn’t mind. She had become surrogate family. She would rush to the aid of my grandmother when she refused to take medicines and tonics for her assorted illnesses. To cheer her up, Helen would whisk granny off in a taxi, for furniture- and mango-shopping.

And once over tea, when my grandmother advised her, “Never trust a man completely, be on your guard always,” I was livid. Granny was talking out of turn, to which Helen shot back, “It’s between us. Don’t you dare poke your nose into girlie talk.”

I didn’t but the equations were bound to change. I wrote a no-holds-barred negative review of Ramesh Sippy’s Akayla, scripted by Salim Khan, convinced that I couldn’t allow personal equations to dilute my take. Pfft, it was never the same again. The come-over-for-dinners became infrequent, the conversations with Salim Khan became embarrasingly argumentative and acrimonious. End of story.

Of course, I can understand that no one relishes criticism. Salim Khan and Helen are no exceptions to a rule older than the pyramids. Fortuitously, during those years of our acquaintance, she fox-trotted with me at one of her birthday gatherings. Now how many of Helen’s fan-boys can boast of that?

Moreoever, that visual of Helen in a flaming red sari with furry white snowflakes, stays with me. So does the whisper, “Dearie, do you want to know a secret?”

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