‘The audience loved Helen then, they still do’

‘It was because of the strength of Helenji‘s performance that I was even called on stage to present her with the coveted Black Lady.’

She was the cabaret queen who shimmered to the tunes of Piya Tu Ab To Aaja and O Haseena Zulfon Wali Jaane Jahaan.

In figure-hugging gowns, with her trademark tail feathers, gloves and veils, Helen was the ultimate male fantasy who could not only drive flesh and blood men dizzy with desire, but in the world of make believe, also breathe life into a statue as she crooned Yeh Jawani Pyaar Ko Tarse.

Even when she moved out of the night club, Bollywood’s Bad Girl did not stray too far away from stereotype.

She was the nautch girl, the don’s moll, the daku‘s entertainment for the night, the bartender who was a gud ki dali for her sozzled customers or at best, the vamp with a golden heart.

Mahesh Bhatt, who gave her the opportunity to go beyond naach-gaana and showcase her acting abilities in his second film as director, Lahu Ke Do Rang, salutes the actress on her 84th birthday on November 21, and tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya , “Helenji debunked the myth that an actress is limited by her image. Give her a strong role, and she will deliver.”


Helenji and Jenny Francis of Immaan Dharam stayed in my mind

I cast Helenji as Vinod Khanna’s sacrificing lover Suzy and the mother of his son Suraj, played by Danny Denzongpa, in my 1979 directorial Lahu Ke Do Rang.

At the time, she was still a dancer for the Hindi film industry who did chartbusting item numbers, and for many film-makers, simply eye-candy.

The only other film in which she was cast against type was Desh Mukherjee’s Immaan Dharam, scripted by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar.

The action drama, which had her opposite Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan, released in 1977.

Helenji and Jenny Francis of Immaan Dharam stayed in my mind.

When we were casting for Lahu Ke Do Rang, I immediately thought of her for the character of Suzy.

It had Vinod Khanna in a double role, as father and son.

The story begins in Hong Kong, before Independence, with the older Vinod Khanna who had left the country to join Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and now, was on the run from the British.

Shamsher Singh gets protection from Suzy, a Chinese origin girl.

She falls madly in love with him and a child is born from this whirlwind romance.

I thought Helenji and Danny Denzongpa would look extremely credible as the mother and son duo of Suzy and Suraj.

Having seen Immaan Dharam, I knew she was a performer with untapped potential.

It’s an inspired bit of casting, but not everyone agreed.

‘Helen ke saath emotional film bana raha hai, pagal hai kya!

When we were filming in Bombay’s Natraj Studio, a reputed choreographer shooting on the next stage, walked up to me, a junior director, and asked, ‘Suna hai Helen ke saath shooting kar raha hai, dance hai kya? (I heard you are shooting with Helen, is it a dance?)’

Shaking my head, I replied, ‘Nahin, emotional film hai (No, it is an emotional film).’

The response was incredulous: ‘Helen ke saath emotional film bana raha hai, pagal hai kya! (You are making an emotional film with Helen, are you crazy!)’

Helenji herself was happy to do my film, but she too was nervous about whether she would be able to pull off the role that demanded not song-and-dance but emotional drama.

She was also surprised I wanted to cast her opposite a top star like Vinod Khanna.

However, once she jumped on board, she gave every bit of herself to the role.

She went beyond my expectations and not only ‘looked’ Suzy but with her talent and depth, debunked the myth that an actress is limited by her image.

Give her a strong role and she will deliver.

The audience loved her then, they still do and as they say, time is the best critic.

For me, this scene is an unforgettable moment as a director

In the film, a pregnant Suzy lets Shamsher return to his motherland and his mission, confident that he will be back to take her and their son back to India.

The wait is endless, but Suzy doesn’t give up hope.

She has no idea that he has married another woman, fathered another son and been betrayed by his best friend and his accomplice.

In the scene, Suraj walking in, tells his mother that he saw her husband coming towards their house.

Immediately excited, an ecstatic Suzy runs towards the door and stands there waiting expectantly.

It’s only when Suraj laughs out loud, that she turns, and realising he has cracked a joke on her tells him, ‘Tu bada ho gaya hai na beta, maa se mazak karta hai (You have grown up my son, started joking with your mother now)’.

It is an intensely emotional scene during the course of which Danny as Suraj realises that he has hurt his mother deeply.

To make amends, he sets out in search of his missing father.

Shamsher is dead, but Suraj, while trying to retrieve stolen gold from the bottom of a lake, discovers he has a stepbrother.

Raj, who is a cop, is a lookalike of his Shamsher.

Together, Suraj and Raj are able to avenge Shamsher’s murder.

For me, this scene when hope flares, ignited by puckish humour, and revokes a heartbreaking response, is an unforgettable moment as a director.

I never went back to her with a role

Lahu Ke Do Rang won two Filmfare Awards: The trophy for Best Art Direction went to my late friend Madhukar Shinde while Helenji was adjudged Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

I remember that award night at Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall and running up to the stage.

I was still a non-entity then, Lahu Ke Do Rang being only my second film as a director.

It was because of the strength of Helenji‘s performance that I was even called on stage to present her with the coveted Black Lady.

Thanks to Helenji, I had my few minutes in the spotlight when felicitating her.

A few years after Lahu Ke Do Rang, I heard that she had voluntarily bowed out of the industry.

We met off and on, during my interactions with Salim Khansaab, her scriptwriter husband, but I never went back to her with a role, knowing she was no longer interested in acting.

The memory of Lahu Ke Do Rang and Helenji as Suzy hasn’t faded, for me or the world.

Over four decades later, I still get calls to talk about her and the film.

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