YouTube is currently flooded with Bollywood film clips, and rightly so. In the past it has been quite a chore keeping up with the vast history of Indian pop cinema, digging through boxes of unlabeled video cassettes and DVDs with titles that we anglo-speakers can't begin to pronounce. But thanks to this modern on-line file-sharing world, we can all finally get a glimpse of the visuals that go along with our Doob Doob O Rama compilations.
Beware of the Blog is certainly not immune to the ticklish joys of Bollywood. Why in just the past month or so we've featured a Bollywood Beatles cover, one of the greatest dance clips of all time (from the Tamil film Sakalakala Vallavan), and this mash-up of a rather famous number which has even been covered by our own "house band".
But, dear readers, today we delve a bit deeper into the glittery and glamourous Bollywood world by taking a look India's biggest star. She appeared in over 500 films and can be seen in almost every big production of the late 50s through the early 70s. I am referring to the glorious, talented, show-stopping Bollywood cabaret sex-symbol Helen.
Helen (whose unused last name was originally Richardson) was exotic even by Bollywood standards. A mixture of Burmese, French and Spanish ancestry, she was blessed with cat-like eyes and a stunning come-hither smile. She also looked completely natural draped in outrageously gaudy (and skimpy) costumes while enthusiastically showing off her untouchable Polaroid-shakin' dance moves. Her skills were hardly the stuff of the chaste good-girl romantic lead, and other than a few B-movie productions, she was never technically the star attraction. Instead, Helen played the "other" woman, whose loose morals, rebellious attitude, and scandalous wardrobe more often then not meant that she was destined to tragically die in the final reel. But not before she was plopped into a rollicking, sexy song and dance number that had little to do with advancing the story line. Of course, that meant her scenes (known as cabarets) were often the best part of mediocre films. Combine that with the unavoidable allure of the dangerous woman, and it's easy to see why she became a huge hit with audiences.
More info and YouTube links after the jump.
Another big fan was the legendary Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle, whose voice was used for many of Helen's more famous numbers. Asha gained quite a reputation for singing cabaret-style songs, and she really enjoyed a Helen showcase, as it allowed her to exploit the more sensuous aspects of her voice. Through the 60s and 70s, the best performances by both are closely linked.
Helen's career petered out in the late 70s, as mores and styles in cinema changed with the times (word is she had some personal crisis as well). But she did have one final swan song - a dramatic role in 1979's gritty Lahu Ke Do Rang, for which she won an Indian Oscar. After that, she married the screenwriter Salim Khan and retired.
But the legend of Helen lives on. The ultra-classy Merchant Ivory Productions made a wonderful short documentary about her, and a book about Helen's career has recently been published (here is the review from the excellent India culture blog Jabberwock). But if you really want to know Helen - you've got to see her in action.
And that's where YouTube links come in:
The reign of Helen truly begins when she stole the show with Chinese-themed "Mera Naam Chin-Chin-Choo" from the 1958 hit Howrah Bridge.
The multi-character mystery story of Gumnaam (1965) features one of Helen's larger dramatic roles. But that doesn't mean there isn't time for a crazy cabaret dream-sequence, or even better, a drunken duet! Just pick up the DVD...you won't regret it.
From 1969's Talash comes the Vegas showgirl number "Karle Pyar Karle", with vocal by Asha Bhosle.
Helen, you dog, you! From the same year, comes probably the most blatantly erotic Bollywood song ever in Intaquam (or Inteqam - spellings vary). Vocal by Lata Mangeshkar.
Nobody does drunk like Helen. She has a great drinking scene in Gumnaam, but the Spanish style "Piya Tu Ab To Aaja" from 1972's Caravan is her best. Asha sings this one, too.
The 70s roll on and Bollywood is becoming more driven by crime films and action. But Helen is still needed - especially in those cabaret numbers. Try this awesome scene from the 1977 spy film Agent Vinod. Or how about a holiday number (with a cameo from Santa!) from 1976's Kalicharan. And don't miss her almost last appearance in the one of the best hard-boiled Bollywood crime films, Don (yes, just "Don"). Again, a highly recommended DVD. The film was recently remade (so be careful that you get the right version), but fans still love the original femme fatale, even putting the new version over the old.
Helen lives on...she's older and larger now, but can still dance up a storm!