There are club songs in Indian films performed either by designated dancers or stars making a special appearance. Then there is the Helen song, a genre unto itself. Helen didn’t invent the club number but she owned it through her fabulous footwork, exotic looks, even more exotic costumes and irresistible grin. Born in Burma on November 21, 1938, to a Burmese mother and an Anglo-Indian father, Helen arrived in India along with her family in 1943 during WW II. She started out as a chorus dancer in the early 1950s, and made her breakthrough as a solo dancer in Howrah Bridge (1958). Till the late ’80s, Helen was a key element of all kinds of films across languages and genres, appearing either in solo dance numbers or a vamp. Here are ten of her most memorable songs.
Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu, Howrah Bridge (1958) The breakthrough number, sung by Geeta Dutt, composed by OP Nayyar, and performed with gusto by Helen pretending to be a Chinese dancer.
Ooi Maa Ooi Maa, Parasmani (1963) The club song, yes, but the classical number too – Helen puts on a traditional costume and sways to Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s beats.
The instrumental title track from Cha Cha Cha (1964) This melodrama about the lopsided relationship between a blind woman and a conservative singer was designed as a vehicle for Chandrashekhar (he wrote, directed, produced and essayed the lead role). But Cha Cha Cha offers Helen a rare chance to be a heroine. Here she is in the opening track with Bela Bose.
Is Duniya Mein Jeena Ho To, Gumnaam (1965) An unofficial remake of the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, Gumnaam has a memorable Shankar-Jaikishen score, including a piece of philosophical advice from the woman who has lived her life on her own terms. Helen got a Filmfare nomination as Best Supporting Actress for Gumnaam.
O Haseena Zulfonwali, Teesri Manzil (1966) Helen, co-star Shammi Kapoor, director Vijay Anand and RD Burman prove to be an explosive combination.
Aa Jaane Jaan, Inteqam (1969) Asha Bhosle usually sang for Helen, and this is a rare foray into cabaret territory by Lata Mangeshkar. The now-notorious number features a chained man with blackface inside a golden cage and Helen gracefully jerking her hips on the outside.
Piya Tu Ab To Aaja, Caravan (1971) The one in which RD Burman gasps and moans in the background as Helen’s Monica drowns her sorrows in alcohol and waits for the darling of her dreams to show up while she prances about in a sparkly red dress.
Aao Na Gale Lagaon Na, Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972) Helen plays Kamini, a mean-spirited seductress who repeatedly tries to woo Rajesh Khanna’s character. In this hit number, the matching pink outfits, Asha Bhosle trilling in the background, and RD Burman’s music don’t seem to be helping.
Yeh Mera Dil Pyar Ka Deewana, Don (1978) There are “seduction by Helen” songs, and then there is this great number composed by Kalyanji Anandji and featuring Amitabh Bachchan as a reluctant recipient of Helen’s signature moves.
Gaate Thay Pehle Aleke, Khamoshi (1996) Helen has been occasionally appearing in dramatic roles ever since she stopped dancing in the ‘80s. In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s debut feature Khamoshi, she plays Manisha Koirala’s grandmother, Maria Braganza.