EXTENDED FAMILY: Helen found love and acceptance with Salim Khan’s family. Seen here (l to r) Ayush Sharma (married to Arpita Khan), Sohail Khan, Salman Khan, Helen, Salim Khan and Salma Khan

Yesteryears dancing star Helen had a hard life. From rags to riches to rags again, it could have been a tragedy, but love came to the rescue.

By Ali Peter John

SINCERELY thank all those men and women who took a decision to confer the Padmashri on Mrs Helen Khan, one of the most outstanding women of India. It is an honor done to a woman who has achieved all that she has all on her own — a woman who has been a dancer beyond comparison and a woman with a heart of gold.

Helen is a part of Hindi film history, a name which can never be forgotten by those who have seen her work and a lesson to learn for those who have the will to learn from a life lived to the full. A woman who has given more to life than life has given to her.

Almost fifty years ago a little girl who was only four years old, half Spanish and half Burmese, left Burma where she was born, a country fighting the flames of hatred. She escaped and travelled to India without any ambition, without any destination or goal. Little did this girl called Helen know that she had walked into a lane where her future, call it destiny or what you may, was to be shaped, the country where she was to win fame, fortune and grow into a legend, a star in her own right, a star who would shine in the midst of any star.

Helen took her first steady steps as a group dancer, as one of the many other girls dancing around the star dancer, the one dancer who used to be the dancing glory of every film called Cuckoo who was the only dancing star then, the highest paid and who it needs to be said here, died homeless, penniless, and uncared for in a municipal hospital with no one even to claim her body which was once the centre of attraction for millions.

This new Helen with those unusual but enchanting and enticing eyes and face, and an hour-class figure which moved like magic, caught the attention of one and all, but one particular producer, P.N Arora saw her plight, took her under his wings and helped her to dance her way to unexpected success.

She hit the dancing floor with a bang when she danced and sang “mera naam chin chin chin” in “Howrah Bridge” and people wanted more and more of Helen.

Soon every big film had to have a dance with Helen as the dancer and no one else. There could be any other star, or any number of most popular stars, but one Helen and one Helen dance number was a must. Filmmakers had to find out ways to have Helen dancing in their films because every distributor said, “yeh sab toh theek hai, lekin Helen kaha hai iss mein? Helen nahi toh film mein jaan nahi” and the audience also agreed with them.

Helen was soon “the most precious and priceless perfume” of a film, her dances were now attractive, eye-catching and more pulsating than the dances of any other dancers — most of them her own creation according to the demands of the script and the scene. She knew what “they” wanted and gave it to them in double measure.

Helen wore the most baring, short, skimpy and revealing outfits and was sometimes only covered with feathers and sequins. She made all kinds of alluring and tempting moves which sent the spirits of men soaring, their heartbeats reaching breaking point and their blood pressure rising to dangerous levels, making them quiver and shake all over and feel all kinds of sensations in their body. But Helen was never vulgar, never cheap, and never did things that crossed the limits of decency. She brought dignity to even the most sensuous and voluptuous dances and no one and no censor could have any objection to her dances.

Her popularity as a dancer reached sky high and gave her mentor, Mr. Arora new ideas. He decided to turn her into the leading lady of films but all she could find were roles with heroes like Chandrashekhar (“Cha Cha Cha”) and Dara Singh (“Aaya Toofan” and other films). She could not make it really big because of her “phoren” looks, her anglicized accent, the way she carried herself, and above all her image as the “sexy dancer”.

Helen who was the respected “Helenji” then tried playing supporting characters and vamps and was a success. She was the “roop” and “rang” which was lapped up by  men women and children alike because she was not the kind of dancer who could “spoil” the “sanskiriti” and “parampara” of the country. She was no danger to the roots of our culture.

The seventies saw a sudden slide in her successful journey. The only times she sizzled was in the two evergreen numbers, “mungda mungda” sung for Amjad Khan in the film “Inteha” and “Mehbooba Mehbooba” sung for Amjad Khan again in “Sholay”. The two songs are still considered the biggest hits and Helen’s dances accompanying them are still fresh in the minds of people.

What followed was almost a replay of what had happened to Cuckoo, the dancer she had succeeded. She realized how her “Godfather” was the “devil’s father” who fleeced her of all her earnings and kept her like his “private possession” and even got his hands on her spacious flat on Peddar Road, facing the well-known Sophia College.

The same Helen of a thousand hearts now found it difficult to make two ends meet and it was heart- breaking to see her walking from office to office telling filmmakers that she was Helen and wanted work. Sadly no one was willing to listen.

It was all but over when love come in as a saviour. Salim Khan was a struggling actor when she was a star in “Teesri Manzil” and was always in love with her. Even though he was now the most successful writer, he protected her, accepted her and married her with the consent of his first wife, Salma, and his grown up children, Salman, Sohaib, Arbaaz, Arpita and Alvira. She is Mrs Helen Salim Khan now and the “mummy” of Salim and Salma’s children too…

She kept working and played the mother in films like “Akayla” and “Khamoshi – The Musical” in which she even showed how well she could dance.

“Khamoshi – The Musical” the first film directed by the now renowned Sanjay Leela Bhansali was her last film. She played a Goan Christian mother of Manisha Koirala. It was also a film which was completely shot in and around Goa which she has always maintained is her favourite place. Talking about her Goan experience, she said, “I have always had a very close bond with Goans. All my masters who helped me learn the steps needed for dancing in films were Goans. They were so kind and so loving. They treated me like one of them and I loved them all the more because dancing, singing and music came to them naturally. It was all a way of life for them and I enjoyed living their life and their ways. Some of the best dancers and musicians in the film industry are from Goa and I think the industry should be thankful to these beautiful, wonderful Goan people. If there is one place I always feel like running away to, it is Goa to spend time on the beaches, have some of the most delicious food and forget all the worries of the world. Goa and the Goan people are like a balm that soothes me whenever I am in any kind of pain. Long live Goa and my Goan people”.

Helen is seventy-eight (unbelievable) now and is at peace with herself and her family she has dedicated her whole life to.

Helen is a woman who proved what women power was and what a woman of substance really was a long time ago and she deserved all kinds of honors and awards. But being awarded the Padmashri and the MAMI Lifetime Achievement Award,  when even small time singers who have no knowledge of what the sa re ga ma of music is are winning it, is the best thing to happen to Helen and the best way to add meaning to the Padmashri which is gradually losing its respect and dignity.

I salute you Mrs Helen Khan. The country must salute you. You are not an ordinary woman. You are a woman who dances on the stage of life.

Mumbai-based Ali Peter John is a senior jounalist who has lived and seen the highs and lows of tinsel town

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