Week 10 and Helen

"मैं सारे ज़माने के ग़म की दवा हूँ "
(I am the cure of all the sorrows in the world)
- Lyrics from Helen's song in the film अधिकार (Adhikaar).

In the book Helen - The life and times of an H-Bomb, author Jerry Pinto tells us just how close Helen came to personify these (and many other similar) words in her screen persona that extended across multiple movies spread over almost three decades. In doing so he doesn't just take us through the phenomenon that was Helen, he also takes this opportunity to take us through the myriad ways of Indian, mostly Hindi, cinema. This is as much a commentary on the phases of Indian cinema as it is on the way Helen, through the characters played by her, acted as a bridge between these. As someone who grew up on all sorts of Hindi movies, I can identify with the author's apparent unwillingness to openly criticize the movies that he discusses throughout the book, however kitschy or corny they might sound. The movie-buff inside the author, that is visible even as you're just a few pages into the book, got me more interested about the book. Over the years I haven't had much luck with finding good writing on Indian cinema. Whatever I got was either too snobbish - written with a holier-than-thou attitude that just put me off, or too pedestrian. It was thus a welcome relief to get my hands on a well-written and well-researched book on Hindi cinema.

As he very clearly mentions right at the start, this is not a book about Helen the person. In fact, the author has never met Helen in real life (though not for lack of trying). This is a piece celebrating the on-screen persona of Helen, the same persona that would sub-consciously cloud your mind whenever you read Helen's name in the opening credits no matter what generation you belong to. It is the author's argument that this persona was used by film-makers to establish the tenets of the moral universe within the movie. It was used as a frame of reference in movies to establish how high the protagonists sat on the moral ground. It was used to signal to the viewer the imminent downfall of the hero (before he saw the folly of his ways off-course) since the first things fallen/falling heroes did was to visit a setting (hotel/casino/bar etc.) where Helen was a natural part of the establishment. This would also serve as a contrast to the supremely pure heroine of the piece, and establish the moral depravity of the western society (puke) - because of Helen's Anglo-Indian looks. The author has done a very good job of classifying the various jobs that Helen's character had within this frame of reference. She was the moll, the accomplice, the personification of lust, the dirty secret from the past, and sometimes the love interest of the comedian. There are plenty of examples from movies through the years underscoring these roles, and they would prove very enjoyable reading for anyone who has had an interest in Hindi movies. Also, you should probably also be ready to face some uncomfortable truths about Hindi internalizing sexism, racism and the likes.

I enjoyed the way the author chose his words throughout the book, they make for an interesting and funny read. Consider this, when trying to explain why Helen did not stand a chance as a leading lady of her times, the author has this to say...
The oldest explanation - she was ahead of her time - has some validity here. At the point of time where she burst on to the screen with her combination of vivacity, expressive body language and sensuous employment of movement, we had no use for these things.They did not fit in with the stereotype fixed for the heroine. A series of angels in white stalked the national imagination, their flowing clothes usually concealing all evidence of the body. They did not dance, they glided. When they smiled, it was from the Olympian heights of Virtue. They were happy in the confines of the home. They might throw it all up for love but the audience was always reassured of the purity of their passions. Duty came first, devotion next, love thereafter and nothing much mattered after that. The world of passion was tamasik (तामासिक); these women were satvik (सात्विक)
There are other gems like these scattered through the book and I would recommend you to find them out for yourself.

[Aside: My 30 week project is well on-course. I have been reading a lot, just that I haven't been able to post much about what I read, that's going to change (hopefully). Be prepared for some movie related books because that's what I have been reading these past few weeks.]


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