In the late 60s and all of 70s, no Hindi film was complete until a dance number (called an ‘item number’ now but a ‘cabaret dance’ then) by Helen was included. Helen with her exotic wigs, feathers, paints, beads, sequins and alluring makeup brought a sense of style and sensuousness to her performances which were never lewd or obscene.
The story of Helen began many years ago when a young woman and her three kids escaped from Japanese domination in Burma. Through wilderness and villages they travelled, foodless and penniless, till they reached Assam. There they rested and recouped and then shifted to Calcutta. The young woman, who was a nurse, could barely manage to support her family on her meagre salary. This is when they shifted to Mumbai and her young daughter took up bit roles as a chorus dancer in movies. This young girl named Helen Jairag Richardson, got her big break in 1958 when she performed the song, “Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo” in Howrah Bridge.
From then on for almost thirty years, she ruled the roost as the Vamp with the golden heart all the while performing what was termed as the “Cabaret Dance” in all the movies that came out of Bollywood.
What is the secret of her long-lived success in the film industry?
Besides her looks which were very different from those of the demure, conservative heroines of that time, the lyrics of the songs that she danced to were musical and in good taste. In sharp contrast are the dances and songs of today, where the top heroines of the country gyrate to songs with unambiguously offensive lyrics and body movements that make the viewers go red in the face with embarrassment.
Besides dance numbers, Helen has done many character roles and even won a prestigious film award for her role in Lahu ke Do Rang.
Helen has appeared in over 500 films. She is often cited as the most popular dancer of the item number in her time. She was the inspiration for four films and a book. A book about Helen was published by Jerry Pinto in 2006, titled The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, which went on to win the National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema in 2007. In 1998 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Filmfare.
It has been an interesting life and Helen, now 74, has been quoted as saying that she lives in the present and that is the secret of her serene and peaceful life.
Below are videos of a couple of her popular numbers. Enjoy.