“I could never walk on the streets. I had to wear a veil.
They used to go berserk when they saw me.”
– Helen

I’ve been feeling rather awful about forgetting to include any of my favorite Bollywood films such as Jewel Thief (1967) and Gumnaam (1965) when I wrote up a list of Favorite Foreign Films recently so in order to rectify that I thought I would do something that I’ve been eager to do for awhile and that is celebrate the work of my favorite Bollywood star, the stunningly beautiful and incredibly talented Helen.

Helen is known to Bollywood fans by one name and one name only, but she was born Helen Richardson-Khan on October 21, 1939 in Burma to a Anglo father and a Burmese mother. By all accounts Helen’s early life was not easy and after her father died during WWII her mother was forced to leave Burma and flee to India with little Helen and the rest of her children. Helen’s mother could not earn enough money on her own to support her family, so Helen left school and started working in films to help with the family’s financial burden. By age thirteen Helen was getting small roles in Bollywood films as a chorus girl or back-up dancer. In 1953 she started to gain recognition for her dancing skills and Helen began performing solo dance numbers in musicals like Alif Laila (1953). As Helen grew into a beautiful young woman casting directors started offering her more adult roles and her big breakthrough role came in 1958 when she was only 16 years old in the popular Bollywood film Howrah Bridge (1958).

Like most Bollywood stars, Helen did not sing her own songs. Her vocals were provided by some of the industry’s greatest female playback singers such as Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar, but Helen managed to infuse her musical numbers with her own exotic charm and lots of energy. As the sixties approached she was becoming a recognizable name in the Bollywood film industry and in the following two decades Helen was offered plenty of opportunities to showcase her stunning beauty and impressive dancing abilities, as well as her great comedic timing. She is said to have appeared in over 500 Bollywood movies during the height of her career, which is an amazing accomplishment for any performer.

Helen was known for wearing very revealing and sexy costumes in her films as well as various wigs and colored contacts. This made her easily standout and combined with her beauty and talent, it was easy for Helen to steal just about any scene she appears in even though she was never a huge Bollywood star in the traditional sense. In many movies Helen was reduced to being the bad girl or “other woman” who was often rejected at the end of the film by the handsome male star for a less interesting good girl that he could bring home to mother. She also plays a bit of a lush in many films who enjoys drowning her sorrows and forgetting her cares with a drink or two. Helen could be called the “Queen of Bollywood Bad Girls” as well as “Queen of the Nautch Girls.”

Helen in Teesri Manzil (1966) and Don (1978)

Most of my limited knowledge about Helen came from the wonderful, but all too brief Merchant & Ivory documentary called Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls, which is available as an extra feature on the DVD for their full-length film Bombay Talkie. According to the documentary and various online sources Nautch Girls are traditional Indian dancers who perform for the pleasure of human beings instead of performing solely in Hindu temples. Helen is also what would be called a “Cabaret Dancer” in Bollywood films or “Cabre Dancer.” Cabre is a type of Bollywood dance that combined traditional Indian dancing with more modern and vigorous beat driven dance moves inspired from Hollywood musicals and no one could out dance the seductive Helen during her heyday in the sixties and early seventies.

Helen semi-retired in the early eighties and now she only occasionally appears in Bollywood films or television dramas. She’s almost 70 now so instead of wearing skimpy costumes and seducing her male co-stars, she’s often playing mothers and grandmothers in her more recent films, but she’s still as lovely as ever.

Many of the early Bollywood films featuring Helen are often crime thrillers or secret agent spy dramas clearly inspired by the worldwide success of the James Bond films. If you enjoy these types of films as much as I do, as well as musicals from the same period than I highly recommend giving some of Helen’s early films a look. Many of them are available on DVD from Eros Entertainment and can be bought cheaply at Amazon or you can find them for rent at Netflix.

It’s impossible to write about Helen’s films without sharing some clips from a few of my favorite Bollywood films featuring knockout performances from Helen. Youtube is overflowing with Bollywood clips and it can be hard to navigate through them to find the good stuff, especially when popular early Bollywood films are often remade countless times. Here are a selection of six great clips from ’60s and ’70s era Bollywood films that are all well worth viewing. Each of these films contain great musical numbers featuring the talented and beautiful Helen, but they’re also terrific films on their own.

Gumnaam (1965)

Jewel Thief (1967)

Night in London (1967)

Caravan (1971)

Anamika (1973)

Don (1978)

There’s a lot of mixed information about Helen online from various sources, but I’m limiting my own write-up to include information I’ve gathered from the Merchant & Ivory film Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls, as well as the online sources listed below.

Recommended Links:
Helen: Bollywood’s first sophisticated seductress
Helen Portrait at Bollywood501
Helen at Wikipedia
Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls reviewed at Senses of Cinema

12 thoughts on “Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls

  1. Well I don’t know how much of an actress she was, having never seen one of her films, but she certainly was one hell of a performer! If she did what she did in those clips over 500 times in Bollywood productions it’s a wonder she wasn’t 80 pounds. I haven’t seen that kind of energy since the Nicholas Brothers (the greatest dancing team of all time) or early Russ Tamblyn.

    And the opening of the Caravan number where she performs to her glass and the clock could have easily been straight out of a silent film. You know, since the advent of naturalistic acting so many actors have lost the art of performing for the camera. As most people probably know I’m a big fan of the thirties (I’ve probably seen more from that decade than any other, besides possibly the seventies, my second favorite period) and so I have a certain comfortable familiarity with “playing it big” that I sometimes miss in many later movies. I remember thinking (foolishly as it turns out) that Nicholas Cage, after I saw him in Vampire’s Kiss and other work in the eighties, that here was an actor who wasn’t afraid to “act” in front of the camera. And then he turned into a bore like so many others and well… what in god’s name did happen to his career anyway? Jesus, what a descent. But I digress.

    Anyway, the point is there’s an excitement watching someone not afraid to let it all hang out for the camera. And I really liked the mirrored dancing going on in the Jewel Thief clip.

    There are so many movies out there from so many countries, how can we possibly keep up? At least when I come here I can get a taste of some things I’ve been missing. Even if I can’t see them all you give me an idea of what’s out there off the beaten path. Well, off the beaten path of America and Europe that is. I can’t imagine, from what I read here and on the Wikipedia entry, that there’s a person alive in India who doesn’t know who Helen is. Thanks for continuing to bring me up to speed.

  2. Those are some great clips. Wow. I loved them. She’s amazing. I’ve only recently gotten into Bollywood movies. I’ve seen a few of the more recent ones, but want to also see more of the classic ones. You’ve definitely inspired me with this blog.

  3. Thanks Kimberly,
    This was fascinating as I know nothhing of Bollywood films. I have been meaning to check some out but right now I am still a total novice…thanks for the tips and for introducing me to this talented performer.

  4. Excellent piece Kimberly! Helen was ‘the’ quintessential pin-up girl of my father’s generation. If you noticed she also has a cameo in Sholay during the gypsy dance sequence. She definitely had all the qualities of a typical Bond-girl and I wonder why she wasn’t cast in Octopussy.

  5. Thanks for all the feedback! I’ve been super busy with work this week so I don’t have a lot of time for posting responses, but I’m glad I could share some clips from a few favorite Bollywood films with you all and I hope you’ll give some of the movies that are easily available on DVD a look.

    I’ve only been regularly watching Bollywood films myself for about 5 or 6 years so I’m pretty new to it all as well and I don’t care for the newer films all that much. Earlier this year a wonderful new Indian market opened up about 3 blocks from my apartment and they rent films (and sell fantastic food!) which makes it easy for me to see lots of Bollywood movies. I hope to share some more detailed reviews of some of my great new discoveries soon!

  6. Joe – I’m not so sure about that, but I really appreciate your vote of confidence and I’m glad you enjoyed the post! šŸ˜‰ Many thanks for the nice words.

    Cheers! xox

  7. My wife and I worked as extras with Helen in Bollywood, late ’60s to early ’70s, and she sure could bust the moves. Very sweet too, not condescending to anyone. Thanks for these clips, great memories.

  8. My mame is Schumail Khan from Pakistan and Im a great fan of Helen’s beauty and talent likewise, but frankly speaking she was better than many leading ladies of her era, still she was only given those roles which showed her as the less fortunate part of our female society or may i am allowed to say condemned females in our soceity of Indian & Pakistani culture. A shockingly resembling in looks & talent to Ms Helen is Ms Nargis now 33yrs of age of Pakistan who is even less fortunate since the film Industry here is almost finished and she has to do stage shows which feature her dance to carry on. Anyways today as a grown up when i look at Helen i dont like the leading ladies which were shown better than her,She is a pearl so precious, I want to meet her and show her my respect appreciation and thank her for her lovely self. May Allah bless you Helen MAAM….

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