Helen’s glorious, glamorous vamp career had a recurring theme—death
Book Excerpts

Helen’s glorious, glamorous vamp career had a recurring theme—death

In 'Helen: The Making of a Bollywood H-Bomb', Jerry Pinto analyses the remarkable life and career of Hindi cinema's dancing antagonist.

Helen performs cabaret in 'Kar Le Pyar' | YouTube screengrab

Helen performs cabaret in 'Kar Le Pyar' | YouTube screengrab

The vamp’s world is a fringe world—hence the French appellation of demi-mondaine—and from the shadows she blows smoke rings at the status quo. Her womanhood is not linked to her womb; it is linked to her sexuality. The easiest way to establish the heart of gold within the prostitute/dancer is to give her a child as the reason for her to sell her body (Shabana Azmi in Bhaavna; Suchitra Sen in Mamta; the nameless courtesan who appears briefly in the song Yeh mahlon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon… in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa).

When, without child or other pressing social need (dying mother, ill father, sister to be married, brother to be educated), she offers her body for sale and does not choose death immediately afterwards, she is perceived as cocking a snook at the building blocks of our society: the ordinary heterosexual couple, whose fidelity to each other is, in civilized societies, only an ethical contract. The basic unit of society—the monogamous marriage—is besieged.

The vamp brings in her trail the threat of disruption. Rehabilitation is not an option, for the reformed bad girl is an even bigger problem: what is society to do with her? It is easier, all round, for the bad girl to die or disappear. Thus, death would become a recurring theme in Helen’s career.

There are two kinds of death that Hindi films offer. There’s death as a reward for stardom—since a death scene is generally a crowd-pleaser and allows for amplified histrionics. In Roti Kapda aur Makaan, Manoj Kumar had an interminably long death scene. In Sholay, Amitabh Bachchan dies with a panache that makes the remaining few last scenes of the film a let-down. In Muqaddar ka Sikandar, a deathfest, first Rekha, a courtesan, kills herself to deny Amitabh contact; then

Amitabh kills her other suitor, Amjad Khan; and finally Amitabh himself dies spectacularly, leaving the pallid Raakhee to the second-string Vinod Khanna.

The bad girl’s death was never in the same league. It was of the other kind. She didn’t get a speech or suitable weepy music with which to end her screen time. She was simply cleared away by a bullet other such quick device.

It should be apparent by now that there is only one type of bad girl: the sexually fallen woman who did not have the moral fibre to kill herself. In Bombay 405 Miles (1980), Helen dies because she abandons her child and her husband for a life of ease as moll to a rapist, kidnapper and killer. Of course, Pran, the husband she abandons, is no saint either. He blackmails people by calling them up and telling them that he knows their secrets. But then, in the clearly defined morality of Hindi cinema, redemption often awaits the man who sins, should he repent in time. Bad girls have no such luck. They are either effaced by a careless script or die.

But even here it is possible to discern two separate kinds of death.

The first kind of death was simply Nemesis catching up with the wrongdoer. In these films, the Helen character was portrayed as unequivocally evil. Through the course of the tortuous plot of Love and Murder (1966), we gather that Helen (who does not even merit a name) belongs to a gang which is run by a psychedelic eye. One of the members of the gang helps rob a bank and then makes off with the money. The gang assumes that his sister Gita (Jaymala) has it. Since Gita has protection in the form of Ranjit (Ramesh Deo), they send Helen to vamp him, which she duly does, singing: Mere dil, meri jaan/ Tu keh de to kar daaloon/ Main dil ka haal bayaan (My love, just say the word/ And I’ll tell you what’s in my heart). In turn, Ranjit joins the gang and romances Helen to get information.

It becomes obvious that Helen is the kind of woman who wants the money for herself, and is willing to double-cross the gang and Ranjit. Eventually everything is sorted out, but not before Helen has died, tortured by Ranjit who ties her to a strange contraption that administers shocks and asphyxiates her simultaneously. One might say she had it coming: a gang member, a double-crosser both in love and commerce.

Extracted from ‘Helen: The Making of a Bollywood H-Bomb’ by Jerry Pinto. Published with permission from Speaking Tiger Books, 2023.