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Dancing queen of Bombay cinema

Dancing queen of Bombay cinema

Helen: The Making of a Bollywood H-Bomb by Jerry Pinto. Speaking Tiger. Pages 264. Rs 499

Surbhi Goel

INDIA has welcomed, embraced and indigenised the art of cinema in which song and dance sequences have been used to great effect in Bombay’s popular cinema (called Bollywood). These sequences add to the after-lives of films, extending their aesthetic as well as production value. Jerry Pinto invokes the electrifying Helen, his glamorous muse, with unequivocal admiration in ‘Helen: The Making of a Bollywood H-Bomb’, which was first published in 2006, delineating Helen's journey through an elaborate filmography, from the early 1950s through the 2000s.

It is only apt that the second edition has been offered now in 2023, when the popular culture is witnessing a heightened enthusiasm for everything dance. From reality shows to fitness programmes woven around dance choreography to customised virtual classes to million-plus views of online videos to even the social media algorithms dancing to the tunes of an insatiable consumer audience, a virtual dance mania has unfolded. To the readers, the book offers a peek into the world of “the dancer who wanted to dance; the woman for whom dancing was as much about her enjoyment of her own body as it was about your enjoyment of it”.

Pinto’s brio for Helen’s life story is complemented by the exhaustive list of films which have been drawn upon and discussed. Since he could not have a direct access to Helen, he traces the topography of her 50-year career graph of more than 500 films, while creating a taxonomy founded on the historical evolution of various characters/presences essayed by Helen Richardson.

His peachy keen approach translates into an alternative method of carving the history of Bombay cinema itself.

Just as Helen pivoted from a side-kick to the heroine, to the vamp and a script-marker, to a frissonic presence, to a comic relief to a musical splash, gravitating towards a more mature role of a matriarch, her presence in Bombay films became almost indispensable. The many lives of Helen in a wide variety of films also speak volumes about her versatility as a performer. A rank outsider, her British-Burmese roots became an attractive quality in her performances, yet the elements of abhinaya in her performances lodged her in the hearts of her audience.

A drawback of Jerry Pinto’s schema of iconisation is that it remains insular. The deep dive into filmography is not buttressed with incisive analyses of the performances. He locates the enunciations within the dramatic arc and narrative of the films, but no further. The engagement with the artifice of performance, which elevated Helen to a mythic status in Bombay cinema, is very thin. Helen’s performances were the high point of a derivative cinema, which relied on the abilities of an audience to remain in full suspension of disbelief, yet being aware of the reality of her eroticism. The more bizarre the lyrics and costumes worn by the actress, the deeper the paradox; her excesses became attractive on account of resisting the almost sanitised, neatly manicured mores. However, such phenomena were also a part of a larger movement from high culture to kitsch in the films and other media and art forms, across the globe.

In the Hollywood of 1960s, the explosive performances of Ann-Margret Olsson in Viva Las Vegas, Bye Bye Birdie, Kitten with a Whip, The Swinger while writhing, pouting, donning elaborate coiffures, dancing the cabarets, jazz, jive, twist, Watusi, jerk, dancing troll and Nitty-Gritty are legendary. It is hard to ignore how much of the Helensque performances were derived, inspired and referenced by Margret’s. A case in point is Ann Margret’s collaboration with Bobby Banas in Made in Paris and the aforementioned films.

The Helenesque style continued to echo even after she became scarce on-screen. The ever-increasing access to the audio-visual content has granted immortality to Helen, who “redefined the grammar of movement for women in Hindi cinema”. Her iconisation is also a result of a ‘self-reflexive moment” in Hindi cinema, wherein many of her performances collide and meld to create reverberations and continuities. Helen’s hip swivels and shimmies are now the swag quotient.

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