The title of the 31 minute documentary Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973) is a homage to the Indian superstar Helen, who may possibly hold the title of the most famous and beloved of all Bollywood film legends. A nautch girl in India is one who specializes in demonstrating a wide variety of popular dances and Helen had few rivals at this as demonstrated by the remarkable range of her talent in a head-spinning array of film clips from her long career.
Directed and narrated by Anthony Korner, this enormously entertaining portrait was written by James Ivory who had worked with Helen in the unforgettable opening sequence in Bombay Talkie (1970). In that scene, Helen, accompanied by numerous chorus girls, performs a dance on the keyboards of a giant typewriter while flirting and singing a duet with her co-star, Shashi Kapoor. While that musical number, which is being shot for the film-within-a film storyline of Bombay Talkie, marks her only appearance in the movie, it is more of a tribute to her by the Merchant Ivory filmmaking team as an iconic and enduring presence in Bollywood films. Born on October 21, 1939 with the name Helen Jairag Richardson Khan, the dancer/actress will celebrate her 77th birthday this year. She began her career as a chorus dancer in Indian films in the early fifties but it wasn’t until 1958 that she had her first major breakthrough performing the song “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” in the Shakti Samanta film, Howrah Bridge. Although Helen did graduate to play leading roles in a few films, it was her work as a specialty dancer that has kept her busy for decades. Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls intersperses numerous scenes of Helen dancing and singing (she was always dubbed by India’s most popular female playback singers) with interviews with the performer that take place in her dressing room and a limousine. At the time the documentary was produced, Helen had just celebrated the making of her 500th film, Dil Daulat Duniya (1972); she would go on to make over hundred more with her most recent credit in 2012 for Heroine. In the course of the documentary, we learn that Helen had an American father and a Burmese mother and that the family had to flee to India during WWII when the Japanese invaded Burma. The actress doesn’t dwell on her childhood but gives you the impression it was a difficult time for the family and was probably the defining experience that made her such a tireless, hard-working performer (she often works in two long daily shifts when making pictures with only a brief break for lunch between morning and evening). Despite the public impression of her as a glamorous star, the Helen we see at her makeup mirror applying eyeliner or adjusting a wig is a practical and unpretentious working girl who has no illusions about lasting fame. She realizes her top-billed days are numbered but admits she can probably extend her career by playing character parts or dancing in limited cameo appearances. For her retirement though she fancies the idea of operating a “groovy” boutique in the Sheraton Hotel. In contrast, the Helen we see on the screen in such Bollywood musicals as Gumnaam (1965), which was sampled in the opening credits of 2001’s Ghost World, is an exotic, alluring creature with a pulsating pelvis and the ability to change characters and costumes in the middle of hyperkinetic dance thanks to the magic of the editors.
The dancer’s mass appeal in India is best described by Robert Emmet Long in his book The Films of Merchant Ivory: “The dance numbers she performs sometimes involve melodramatic situations that may provoke a smile (in one Helen taunts a black convict locked in a cage who is driven to desperation to get at her); but one’s reactions are actually more complicated than this. Helen manages to generate a sense of excitement (at times perhaps even of danger) as the lid of Pandora’s box is opened, and the many shapes of forbidden desires and fantasy are released. Reinforced by the surging rhythms of background music, and the camera’s powerful concentration on her….Helen draws one into a dream world.”
If you have never seen a Bollywood musical, Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls is a wonderful introduction to the genre and one of its leading stars. You may even find yourself seeking out any Helen films that are available on DVD such as the supernatural romance Woh kaun Thi? (1964) or the delirious caper fantasy, Jewel Thief (1967). The iconic screen presence continues to delight and inspire fans and filmmakers even today. In fact, in 1999, Canadian filmmaker Eisha Marjara made an independent experimental film entitled Desperately Seeking Helen that was a highly personal account of her search in India for the famous superstar among other things.