She doesn’t need any other name. Every Hindi film fan knows her simply as Helen. She shook her groove thing onscreen through 3 decades of cinema, before bowing out as gracefully as she shimmied in.
The idea that she was “too western” to really make it as a lead actress mystifies me honestly, since she could and did look very Indian when she needed to. Her movie appearances were generally limited to one dance and that was sadly it; but she was a very natural actress too. She was the heroine in some B-movies opposite the likes of he-man Dara Singh (of wrestling fame) and had occasional small roles as a troublemaker or vamp (and, once or twice, the heroine’s friend) in more mainstream movies.
My favorite role of hers is as Miss Kitty in Gumnaam (1965). She has three songs and one of the lead parts, and she’s opposite Pran, another of my favorites. Gumnaam has a post of its own, but here she is in it (with Mehmood, in a fantastically staged number complete with Easter Island-type statues and dancing girls tied to posts):
Her trademarks were the wide smile always present on her face as she danced; and the way she never appeared vulgar no matter how outrageous and suggestive the surroundings, the song or her costume were:
She was versatile, slipping easily from nautch girl:
to flamenco dancer:
to western club dancer:
and tribal bar girl:
She dominated the screen even when sharing it with the great actress-dancer Vyjayanthimala:
Asha Bhosle was usually her “voice”, and they made a great team—like Shammi with Rafi, they would work together on how the vocals would fit the dancing. Helen made her exit as a dancer sometime in the early 1980’s when she was in her 40’s—and she still looked better (and danced better) than a lot of her younger rivals.
She has appeared more recently in films like Khamoshi: The Musical and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (both starring her stepson Salman Khan). One of the (only) bright spots in the interminable Mohabbatein is the scene where she breaks into an impromptu rendition of “O Haseena Zulfon Wale” with Shah Rukh:
Merchant-Ivory made a short film about her (“Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls”) which is included on the DVD of Bombay Talkie*; I’m not a big Merchant Ivory fan, but it’s a great tribute to her at the height of her career. Youtube.com has dozens of Helen’s numbers for your viewing pleasure; and be sure to read Jerry Pinto’s interesting book on her career, “Helen: The Life & Times Of An H-Bomb”.
Update: See a list of my favorite Helen songs and dances here!
*sometimes; apparently also “Jane Austen in Manhattan” although I have no idea why