"Dance like no one is watching," says an oft-repeated aphorism, and no one epitomises it better than Helen, who ruled the silver screen dance floors of Bollywood in the 60s and 70s. On a personal note, she instilled a love of dancing in me. She made me understand that one needs to dance with joy and abandon. Much like the surrender and utter 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 both men and women who equated the feminine 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 and attitude from that of the film's "heroine", who was staid, proper and goody -goody.
"I hope each and every woman will have the courage not to be caged by false and hypocritical categories, just like you."
I recall fondly my father's (an IPS officer) postings in remote districts of the then 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 Bachchan, Hema Malini etc. I would ask for a snippet only of Helen, inviting disapproving looks or, rather, a scandalised frown from the projectionist, a dignified and elderly 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 would dance 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 and a wreath of feathers on my head from my mother's domesticated rooster made up my Helen look then.
Helen brought in creativity to her craft which according to me remains unmatched 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-dominated films. Such films idolised a pleasantly plump woman wearing a sari , vermillion tikka 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 sari signalling his desire, freezing the notion that good girls/ladies are really not supposed to feel pleasure, but give in to a "duty".
As Erica Jong noted:
"The greatest feminists have also been the greatest lovers. I'm thinking not only of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, but of Anaïs 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 to not bow down to what Naomi Woolf calls "victim feminism" and be constrained by the myths of good-girlism and sentimental sisterhood. I hope each and every woman will have the courage not to be caged by false and hypocritical categories, just like you.
A version of this post first appeared in The Accidental Sufi