Sometime in the 70s, Gumnaam, released in 1965, was brought back for a week or so at the National Stadium Cinema. Helen was the key member of the cast. Needless to say she had a peppy number – Is Duniya Mein Jeena Hai Toh Sun Lo Meri Baat. It was not a cabaret number but featured Helen, in a short skirt, frolicking with Pran on a beach.

Struck by Helen’s beauty, one of her fans found a unique way of celebrating her. He visited the theatre for a week just to watch that particular number, which comes late in the movie. He would time his entry, enjoy the song, and leave immediately. The doormen knew this crazy fan. I knew him too.

Reading Jerry Pinto’s Helen, The Making of a Bollywood H-Bomb, I was reminded of one of Helen’s loyal fans.

Darling of audience

Helen was the unchallenged vamp of the big screen. She was the mistress of the negative role, a darling of the audience, luring the leading man, and causing insecurity among the most famous contemporary heroines. They heaved a huge sigh when Helen Richardson signed up for character roles. Such was her magical hold over the young and the not so young, who watched some movies only because Helen featured in them, sometimes in a brief appearance.

The book by Jerry Pinto is not actually a biography of the celebrated star. It is, as Pinto writes, “Not a biography of Helen, except where the story of her screen transformation, that transcending of the limitations of age, gender and public memory, implicates her life. It will not answer the question: what is Helen really like? I cannot answer the question about what Helen is really like because I have never met her. I sought to meet her but never got past the household help. I apologise but I gave up after about a hundred phone calls/”

But Pinto narrates a splendid Helen story - a story of the iconic contribution to Indian cinema that she made in a stupendous career. Was Helen just a good dancer? She was much more than that. As Pinto says, “A dancer who when she retired from the screen left several myths lying around, myths that slowly began to become the stuff of legend.”

Pinto brings us Helen the actor, and Helen the human. The brave individual who overcame severe hardships to carve an enviable place in the history of Indian cinema. Born to a mother who was half-Spanish and half-Burmese and a father who was a Frenchman, Helen fled with her family on foot from Burma in 1942. The “gruelling trek” brought the family to Assam. Helen was a mere three years old then.

“Unhappy” childhood

Collecting information from different interviews that she gave, Pinto is able to weave a compelling narrative. Helen’s early struggles to her success, from Calcutta to Bombay, where she lived in a suburb in Bandra, in a room infested with cockroaches. Pinto highlights her “unhappy” childhood when she left school at the age of 12 to learn dancing at the wishes of her mother. The cane in her mother’s hand would force her to keep her mind on dancing. She got featured fleetingly in the crowd during the dancing scenes in movies even though her name would appear in credits.

Helen, as Pinto rightly argues, was never a struggler. She acted as the female lead in at least 15 films. None of them were hits but she kept signing films, Cha Cha Cha in 1964 was her first hit as a heroine.

In the 70s, she was “still playing heroine to Dara Singh but her image of the leading lady did not quite appeal to the audience. They loved the Helen who sizzled on the screen trying to seduce the hero even as the leading lady watched helplessly.

The roles that won Helen the hearts of the filmgoers were plenty and Pinto analyses them in detail, coming up with behind the scene anecdotes.

A trained Manipuri and Kathak dancer, Helen confessed she was at “home” doing cabaret. Pinto talks about her face. “My contention is that Helen’s face was almost as important in her dancing as her body. Take, for example, that beautiful song of yearning, Tumko Piya Dil Diya (Shikari, 1963), which she dances with Ragini, one of the Travancore sisters, renowned for their classical training in dance. Ragini’s execution is perfect, her body supple. But then you watch the two of them, it is Helen who holds you. Her face echoes the words. Helen’s face has the abandon of the born dancer.”

Can you forget Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu from Howrah Bridge. Helen became a rage with that dance in 1958. She was 18 and ready to storm the world of Hindi cinema. From her early years to times when she was considered an essential component for success of a film, Helen never had to adapt to any vulgarity to win hearts. There was respect for her work and fans would check on the cast of the movie before buying tickets.

Helen was the password to attract the film lovers.

Helen: The bar dancer

The bar dance was her forte. Piya Tu Ab Toh Aa Jaa from Caravan is considered her best appearance on the screen but one would pick her duet with Shammi Kapoor in Teesri Manzil – O Haseena Zulfon Wali – as the most effortless performance as she slides down the ramp in a most aesthetic display of athleticism, gliding from one frame to another, leaving you in a trance.

She features in the most sensuous songs, Aao Naa Gale Laga Lo Naa, from Mere Jeevan Sathi, without once using a vulgar move. Pinto brings us these moments of Helen’s career through some skilled writing.

In 1965 came Gumnaam, a mystery thriller that became a huge hit. Helen played a bubbly character called Kitty Kelly and saw Lata Mangeshkar produce one of her lilting numbers for her – Is Duniya Mein Jeena Hai Tu Sun Lo Meri Baat. It was a song that had audiences at theaters breaking into a dance and sometimes girls singing along. Such was the magic of Helen.

Of course, Helen in Talash (Kar Le Pyar Kar Le), Inkar (Mungda Mungda), The Train (Maine Dil Abhi Diya Nahi), Anamika (Aaj Ko Raat Koi Aane Ko Hai), Don (Yeh Mera Dil), Sholay (Mehbooba Mehbooba), has left a mark on her fans as the most graceful cabaret girl and a character actor who gave sleepless nights to the best of leading ladies.

The Lata Mangeshkar, who lent her voice to Helen in Ooi Maa Ooi Maa Yeh Kya Ho Gaya from the 1963 movie Parasmani, also sang Aa Jaane Jaan from Inteqam in 1969, the only time she sang a cabaret number.

It was probably Lata’s way of acknowledging Helen’s huge part in making dance a popular segment of a movie. Pinto pays rich tribute to one of the most revered stars of Indian cinema in a must-read book, first published by Penguin Books India in 2006 and now updated and reprinted by Speaking Tiger Books in 2023.

Vijay Lokapally is a senior journalist and author

About the Book

Title: Helen : The Making of a Bollywood H-Bomb

Author: Jerry Pinto

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 272

Price: ₹398 (paperback)

Check out the book on Amazon here