Book Review: Jerry Pinto’s ‘Helen: The Life and Times of a Bollywood H-Bomb’

I won’t go so far as to say that Helen was the first Hindi film actress I remember seeing (that would be Shakila, since CID was the first Hindi film I remember watching). But I distinctly remember being about 10 years old, watching Chitrahaar, and being very excited because an old favourite of mine, a song I had till then only heard and never seen, was going to come on (in Chitrahaar, there would always be a sort of intertitle between songs, a single frame in which the name of the next song, the film it was from, and the names of the music director, the lyricist, and the singer(s) would be listed).

This song was Mera naam Chin Chin Choo, and my feet were already tapping when it began. All that frenetic movement, those men in sailor suits dancing about. The energy, so electric that it even seemed to transmit itself to the musicians. The infectiousness of it all.

And Helen.

Mera naam Chin Chin Choo (Howrah Bridge, 1958) was a fitting introduction to Helen, since it was the song that catapulted her into the realm that she was to rule over for much of the next three decades. It was also, as Jerry Pinto insightfully points out in his book Helen: The Life and Times of a Bollywood H-Bomb, a precursor of things to come. This song was an indication of the space Helen would occupy in Hindi cinema:

Miss Chin-Chin-Choo is an ingénue here more than anything else, offering only a certain physical energy and a bodily charm. She is surrounded by what will later become a standard trope of the Helen figure, a group of male dancers… Her name establishes her alienness… Her use of English establishes her westernization, underlined by the dress she is wearing, the honky-tonk music, and the way she dances with the sailors…

This, the taking of a certain song or scene and analyzing it to draw inferences about a character, or even about tropes in cinema, is one of the main reasons for my liking Pinto’s book a lot. At the very start of the book, Pinto explains that though he tried umpteen times to get hold of Helen, he could not: true to her past history of interactions with the paparazzi or others looking for interviews, she shunned the curiosity. Pinto, therefore, was left to gather whatever meagre information he could get from the rare interview (one in Savvy, for example), in which Helen did condescend to speak about herself.

The personal angle, the biography, is therefore limited. It talks briefly of how Helen was born to a French father and a mother, Marlene, who was half Spanish, half-Burmese. When her husband died, Marlene married again, this time a Britisher named Richardson (whose last name Helen adopted). During World War II, Mr Richardson died, and when the Japanese attacked Burma and occupied it, Marlene, Helen (then three years old), and Helen’s baby brother trekked from Burma into India. They washed up in Bombay, which was where, years later, a 12-year old Helen had to drop out of school and begin learning dance. Later, thanks to the dancer Cuckoo (who played cards with Marlene—or it might have been her parents who played with Marlene), Helen got her first break in films, with Shabistan (1951).

That, barring a passing and non-salacious reference to Helen’s relationship with the film maker PN Arora, followed by her subsequent relationship with (and finally marriage to) Salim Khan, is the extent of Pinto’s discussion of Helen’s personal life.

The rest of this book—nearly all of it—is about the onscreen Helen. Pinto divides this into several chapters, in which he analyzes different aspects of the women Helen played in the several hundred (not likely thousand, as has been quoted at times but which Pinto disagrees with) films in which Helen appeared. He also examines broader aspects of cinema in the process, including tropes, characters, and styles.

For instance, in The Woman Who Could Not Care, Pinto discusses the vamp, beginning with the legendary Theda Bara, and going on to discuss how a newly independent India’s cinema found a counterpoint to the Mother India image in the vamp—and how this implied that the vamp, to be completely and utterly distinct from the pure, traditional, virtuous Indian sati savitri that was exemplified in the heroine, had to be cast as a complete outsider.

Bollywood’s version of the vamp, white-skinned, Westernized, exulting in her own sexuality, the very obvious ‘bad girl’ was exemplified, of course, in Helen, who by virtue of being (in reality, not merely onscreen) part white, Westernized, and unabashedly comfortable with her body, was pretty much made for the part. The rest was added on by film makers. The costumes Helen wore, the songs she lip-synced to, the props that featured in her dances, the way fellow dancers, actors and extras fitted into her dances: all of these (and more) contributed to the Helen persona, as Pinto sets out to show us.

Pinto doesn’t resort to an outright chronological progression of Helen’s films. Instead, each chapter is devoted to a different aspect of the vamp that Helen portrayed. In one chapter, he creates a (sort of) taxonomy of the vamp: the white goddess, the indicator of debauchery (a hero stepping into a space where Helen was dancing automatically indicated to the audience that he was now stepping into a den of vice), the teacher, the moll…

Then, in another chapter, Pinto looks at the different types of songs Helen danced to. Songs of seduction, of course; but also songs of mockery, songs of misdirection, and more.

With each assertion and discussion, Pinto describes scenes and songs galore from Helen’s oeuvre, complete with relevant back stories, quotes of lyrics, and so on, the entire argument coming together to support a theory.

Besides the fact that he’s done a good deal of research into Helen’s films, what I really liked about Pinto’s book is the intelligent and very keen dissection he carries out of the Helen persona. I have seen a lot of Helen films (Pinto provides a filmography—which he admits is not complete—at the end of the book, and I figured I have seen more Helen films than Pinto has), but there were so many things he pointed out here that I’d never noticed.

It’s easy to see how Ruby dying in Teesri Manzil, or Kitty being killed in Gumnaam, or Helen’s character dying in countless other films, is an indication that the vamp is just too bad for redemption (even when she has a heart of gold) —but to find a connection between that and Amitabh Bachchan’s character dying in everything from Sholay to Deewar to Muqaddar ka Sikandar? Now that was something I hadn’t realized. But when Pinto writes about it and explains it, it makes perfect sense.

Similarly, there’s the fascinating discussion about Helen acting as the love interest of comedians—Johnny Walker, Mehmood, Rajendranath, etc—in film after film. I would have thought this was a simple case of a bit of comic relief and a secondary romantic track to balance out the relatively ‘serious’ melodrama of the main track. But no: Pinto dissects this too, and shows, through various examples, how there’s a subliminal message here, aimed at reinforcing the virtues and heroism of the hero and heroine.

And so on and so forth: Pinto examines several other aspects of the vamp that Helen played (even when her character may have been portrayed in a more sympathetic light, as in Woh Kaun Thi? or Pagla Kahin Ka). After tracing her dancing career till it petered out completely in the 1980s, Pinto writes about how Helen reinvented herself in the late 1990s and the early years of the 2000s (this book was published in 2006) as the motherly figure in films like Khamoshi, Mohabbatein, etc. He ends with a bit about how Helen has been paid tributes: by knockoffs in films, by being referenced in (the admittedly rare) films about film-making and the world of cinema. By the thousands who grew up loving Helen and who insist that “there was never anything vulgar about Helen”.

This is not a book you should pick up if all you want to know is the gossip surrounding Helen. In fact, it’s not even a book for those only interested in Helen’s personal life, salacious or no. What it is, is a very good analysis of the onscreen phenomenon that was Helen. It’s very intelligent, incisive and insightful. Plus, Pinto has a good sense of humour, which especially comes into play when talking about some of the more loony B-Grade films Helen appeared in:

Another magician, this time one with evil intent, descends from an extraterrestrial globe that falls out of a cardboard sky, but not before you see the string holding it up for the camera.

My only grouse about this book was that the print quality wasn’t good enough to do justice to the photographs. Not that there are a lot of photographs, but the ones which are there (mostly stills from various Helen films) would have benefited from being printed on better quality paper.

Highly recommended, not just as a book about Helen, but as one about the Hindi cinema of the 50s and 60s too.

35 thoughts on “Book Review: Jerry Pinto’s ‘Helen: The Life and Times of a Bollywood H-Bomb’

  1. I have read it. Honestly spkg i had great expectations when i bought the book but was disappointed. It is not abt her journey from Burma to filmdom, highs and lows, life beyond films. It is more of a filmography of Helen. That is aboit all

    • As I mention in the review, that’s exactly the point. If you approach it looking for gossip about Helen’s personal life, you won’t find anything. It’s not even a filmography – it’s far beyond.

  2. Madhu,
    This is an excellent review. It seems to be a very intelligent book.

    I have to read the book to understand the comparison the author is making between Helen’s death -‘too bad for redemption’- and Amitabh Bachchan’s in ‘Deewar’, ‘Sholay’ etc. If that is what he is saying, I find it difficult to agree with him. In ‘Deewar’, after Parvin Babi is brutalised and killed, he had nothing to live for. In ‘Sholay’ Ramesh Sippy must have been conflicted about widow remarriage. The two fathers discuss this, sort for preparing the audience’, but Sippy must have preferred the poignant ending, avoiding any conflict with orthodoxy.
    AK

    • Thank you, AK. Glad you liked the review.

      The comparison between Helen’s characters and Amitabh’s is an interesting one – the way Pinto outlines it. When and if you read the book, you’ll find out. It’s not quite the ‘too bad for redemption’ angle.

  3. Excellent review, which makes me want to
    read it. I seem to recall a movie (or two) in
    which Helen was the actual Heroine. Can you
    tell us about these? I also read somewhere
    that Helen was responsible for Cuckoo’s
    ‘downfall’, though I have even seen both
    of them together in some songs. Can you
    tell us about these songs?
    Nitin

    • Glad you liked the review. Thank you!

      Yes, Helen was the heroine in a few films – Cha Cha Cha is the one which Pinto mostly talks about, because it’s one of the rare Helen-as-a-heroine films that actually wasn’t B-grade. She seems to have been heroine in a lot of really bad B-grade films. Of course, she does appear in major non-vamp roles (or as a heroine in the beginning) in films like Hum Hindustani, Woh Kaun Thi? and Pagla Kahin Ka, but Pinto does a good job of showing how – at least in the latter two films – her character still stays more close to the ‘vamp’ trope.

      Pinto doesn’t mention (or not that I remember; I think I would remember if I’d come across it) anything about Helen being the downfall of Cuckoo. Of course, the two of them appeared together in several dances before Cuckoo bowed out, by when Helen too had made it big on her own.

      You might like to read this article I came across, in which Helen talks about Cuckoo:

      https://www.cinestaan.com/articles/2016/sep/30/2327

  4. Groan! I have this book. I have had it since 2006 or 2007. And I still haven’t gotten around to reading it, though Young A has. (He, by the way, is a frequent visitor to your blog these days.) Somehow, the quality of the print (I know, I know!) put me off – and I never did get around to reading it! Now I should. :(

    Thanks for the gentle nudge, Madhu – your review makes all the difference.

    • I got this book in a roundabout sort of way. Sometime last year, Tarun had been offered some free books on Amazon Prime, and this was listed among them. So I told him to get it for me – but then, as it turned out, the book wasn’t available as part of the scheme after all. But Tarun bought it for me for my birthday, and I was given it while we were in the middle of our African safari this year!

      You should read it, Anu. The print quality is bad, but after a while (because the writing is so good) it stopped making a difference to me.

      “He, by the way, is a frequent visitor to your blog these days.

      That gladdens my heart! :-)

  5. Oh!
    It sounds interesting. I think I should get hold of it. Thanks for the review Madhuji.
    It is at times difficult to choose a biography book.
    I think it my type, I mean the one which I would like.
    :-)

  6. Seems an interesting book ! Would have liked to order a kindle edition but as said by the gentleman above, even that is not available at present.
    Being a hindi movie buff myself, I have seen thousands of C and D grade movies and there was a time when Helen appeared in almost every alternate movie released. I must have seen quite a few where Helen was the main heroine. ( Sunehri Nagin, Hawa Mahal, Miss Chalbaz to name a few ). Interestingly, I stumbled upon a movie recently on YouTube titled ‘ Sau Saal Beet Gaye ‘ where Ashok Kumar is the hero and Helen is the proper heroine. Not a bad movie at all and the print is also reasonably good. The surprise is that Helen has got almost equal footage like Ashok Kumar and matches Ashok Kumar frame by frame in performance ! The film has screenplay and dialogue by Ashok Kumar himself !

    • How interesting! I’d never heard of Sau Saal Beet Gaye before. I saw that it was released in 1970 – could you tell whether it was actually made around that time (I had been under the impression that Ashok Kumar had stopped acting as the hero well before 1970) or was it, like Pakeezah, one of those delayed releases?

      I must admit I have never watched any of Helen’s B-grade and C-grade films. Pinto describes several of them in the book, though.

      • From all accounts, it is obvious that this film was made much earlier than its censor certificate shows i.e 1970.
        As you have rightly said, Ashok Kumar had stopped working as hero long before 1970 and in all his other films released in 1970 ( Maa Aur Mamta, Sharafat, Purab Aur Pashchim, Safar and Jawaab ), he was a character artist or main actor but not a hero in the traditional sense.
        Further, Ashok Kumar was born in 1911 and he doesn’t look 59 in the film.
        Surprisingly, none of the filmographies shown in wikipedia or IMDb include the name of this film at all !
        Also, in 70’s, i myself used to see 200 to 250 hindi films every year and this films name was totally alien to me when I saw it on YouTube a few months ago. All the songs were also unheard of.
        In view of this, we can safely presume that the film was made much earlier, even after obtaining censor certificate, it remained unreleased till date and was placed on YouTube only a couple of years ago.

  7. I found Helen at her very human and sympathetic in Lahu ke do rang where she plays both mother and love interest to Vinod Khanna(the latter in a father-son double role).The pairing is interesting since Vinod was often paired with Helen in his villain days- long before he became just another boring vanilla hero. And in Kathputali her character had layers.Certainly she was better than the holier-than-thou hero Jeetendra and the heroine Mumtaz had no shades other than tragic.

    • Oh, yes. Lahu ke Do Rang is one of my favourite Helen roles. She’s really good in that, and so believable. I have never watched Kathputli, though. Jeetendra tends to get on my nerves most of the time. :-)

  8. I had bought this book years ago as soon as it came out. I too was a bit disappointed by it, not because of the lack of personal details, but because I was expecting something of Helen’s personal voice and her own comments and self-analysis of her motivation about her career and roles.

    My initial reaction was the same as expressed as some other commenters; it read more like a filmography than anything else.

    Having read your review, I will revisit the book, and see if I did miss out on anything that may have been interesting.

    • From what Pinto mentions in the book – repeatedly, not just once – apparently Helen is very very protective of her personal space and seems to have been so from the beginning. He mentions how he made more than a hundred phone calls to her in an attempt to get even one interview for this book, and still couldn’t. So with that in mind, I’m not surprised that this book turned out to be what it was… for me, though, his analysis of her roles and the broader aspects of Hindi cinema made for very enjoyable reading.

  9. I love Helen and a book that’s focused on her onscreen work rather than gossip about her personal life sounds very appealing. But, your comment that you’ve likely seen more Helen films than Pinto gives me the tiniest bit of pause. I’ve seen a LOT of Helen films myself (including a number of those B-grade films that she was the lead in) and wonder how Pinto can perform a sufficiently thorough analysis of Helen’s career/place in Hindi Films if he hasn’t seen much of her work?

    • “if he hasn’t seen much of her work?

      Oh, I didn’t get the impression that he hasn’t seen ‘much’ of her work. Far from it. It just happens that I have seen marginally more films of hers than he seems to have watched (though he steals a march over me when it comes to the B-grade films in which she starred. At any rate, nowhere did I feel that he was talking without substantial evidence to base his arguments upon.

  10. Madhuji – once again I have to comment with a Tamil film angle :) – I still remember seeing a Tamil movie dance sequence and my mother exclaiming ‘that’s Helen!’ She only appeared for a portion of a single dance in the entire movie. It was an amazing foot tapping rock n roll song from a 1958 movie! The movie was called Uthama Puthiran and had Sivaji Ganesan in a dual role – based on the Man in the Iron Mask.This song is meant to show how the Prince (the evil twin) leads a debauched life of wine and dance and it seems like Helen had to be brought in just for that. She is just amazing – at one point even letting her eyebrows do the dancing :)

    (Helen appears around the 3 min mark.)

    • Thank you so much for this! Several years back, Richard (at the blog Dances on the Footpath) used to have the ‘iron mask’ of this film as his gravatar image, and I was so intrigued by the idea of a Tamil remake of the French novel that I set out to find a subtitled version of Uthama Puthiran – sadly, with no luck! I must try again, you’ve given me incentive. This song is so good, and so catchy! Thank you.

      Talking of Helen in non-Hindi cinema, here she is again, singing Tere liye aaya hai leke koi dil in the Bengali film Gali Theke Rajpath:

      Uttam Kumar looks suitably pleased!

      • Thank you so much – that was a lovely song, sounded like Geeta Dutt – who seems to have been Helen’s regular playback in the early times till it was standardized to Asha Bhosle.
        Uthama Puthiran is a super fun movie. Sivaji plays the subtle differences between the twins so well without overdoing it. One of my favorites.

        • Thank you for the endorsement of Uthama Puthiran! I am really hoping I can find a subbed copy of it. It sounds right up my street.

          And yes, Tere liye aaya hai leke koi dil is by Geeta Dutt.

      • Talking of Helen in non Hindi films, here she is in Marathi film, धाकटी बहीण.
        Sajan aala
        A cabaret, the only one composed by Sudhir Phadke for a Marathi film.
        साजण आला
        Meaning Saajan aaya.

        I should see if she appeared in any other Marathi film. Off hand, I can remember her in the Marathi movie, ‘One room kitchen’, a guest appearance sort of role. It was a few years back, may be four or five years ago.

  11. Here’s Helen in Malayalam – in Allauddeenum Albuthavilakkum. :)

    ‘Allaudin and the Wonderful Lamp’ in translation. Made in Malayalam (and Tamil) with two of Tamil films’ biggest stars, Kamal Hassan and Rajanikant. :)

    • Thank you for this one, Anu. She does seem to have pretty much appeared in every major regional language! Pinto does mention some of the languages in which she lip-synced to songs, but the only non-Hindi films he discusses in some detail are the Bhojpuri ones.

      Here, therefore, is a Helen dance from one of the biggest hit Bhojpuri films ever. Hum toh khelat rahi from Ganga Maiyya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo:

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