Mark Twain had said ‘Dance like nobody is watching you.’ Nobody can epitomize this better than Helen. She is the dancer in the movie/song clip above. She ruled the silver screen of Bollywood in the 60’s and 70’s. On a personal note,she instilled a love for dancing in me. She made me understand that one needs to dance with joy and abandon. Much like the utter surrender and abandon of the whirling dervishes that I witnessed later on in life. She also taught me that a woman needs to set her own individual style , both , in dressing as well as attitude. In a strange way, she also was instrumental in inculcating a sense of glorious pride in my femininity, buttressed by the ability to say ‘Go to hell’, to men and women , both, that tend to equate it with inequality,submissiveness, weakness and frivolousness.
Helen sizzled on the screen,with mysteriously slanted eyes, pouting red lips and more than often, feathers and plumes sticking out from a rather delectable bottom! In those days, she and other similar artistes were referred to as ‘vamps’, playing the bad girl/gangster’s moll in the movies. There was a marked difference in their dressing, attitude from that of the ‘heroine’ in the films, who was staid, proper and goody -goody.
I recall fondly my father’s ( a police officer ) postings in remote districts of Orissa. A much awaited event by us children, was the Saturday night movie. Every Friday, a Hindi movie was run for the Constables in the police barracks.This was later screened in the Superintendent of Police’s residence on Saturday.When the movie ended, a motley group of children, (mainly of other officers in the district )would rush to get a snippet of film roll of legends like Amitabh Bachhan, Hema Malini etc. I would ask for a snippet only of Helen, much to the disapproving look or rather , actually a scandalized frown of the projectionist, a dignified aged Sub-Inspector.I guess he thought that the Sahib’s daughter was irreparably decadent ! Emulating Helen emerging on-screen from cages, swathed in fish nets and shimmering gossamer silk, I danced cabaret numbers to a pretty wide audience too.Snotty kids would watch in awe as I emerged from inside a mosquito net,screaming ‘Piya tu aab to aaja..” Layers of baby fat scantily sheathed in a much torn frock,a wreath of feathers on my head from my mother’s domesticated rooster , made up my ‘Helen’ look then.
Helen brought in a creativity to her craft which according to me still is un-matched till date. There never was an instance where she looked crass or vulgar. On the other hand, she had the guts to look flamboyantly appealing and sexy, holding her own in male hero dominated films. Such films idolized a pleasantly plump woman wearing a saree , vermillion on her forehead, duly having finished the puja rituals in the morning, bringing a cup of tea for her husband.She would then blush and protest when the husband would pull the end of her saree signalling his desire, freezing the notion that good girls/ladies are really not supposed to feel pleasure, but give in to a ‘duty’. Erica Jong says ” The greatest feminists have also been the greatest lovers. I’m thinking not only of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, but of Anais Nin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and of course Sappho. You cannot divide creative juices from human juices. And as long as juicy women are equated with bad women, we will err on the side of being bad”.
Thank you Helen, for having shown me years back, not to bow down to what Naomi Woolf calls ‘victim feminism’ and be constrained by the myths of good-girlism and sentimental sister hood. I hope each and every woman will have the courage not to be caged by false and hypocritical categories, just like you.