The title of this book review almost summarizes what happens in Jerry Pinto’s volcanic criticism, to begin with, and honestly it simply reads as an attack on the hypocrisy and political nature(s) of India’s national cinema through several witty and intelligent readings of the cinematic presence of Helen Khan (née Richardson). The only time Pinto ushers into thinking exclusively about Helen is in the final chapter, the cult of helen, when he cogitates over the mythology of Helen via shorthand perspectives of peoples – from Fahad Samaar, Vikram Kapadia, Anuj Vaidya – and forgets to worry about our beloved cinema, while concentrating on what Helen has meant for audiences, admirers and arch-critics; what this phenomenon of collective fantasies and metaphors had consecrated what we today know as Helen. Perhaps, Pinto had no choice; for Indian cinema and its stars cannot be studied in isolation. There was always the prerequisite to affix stardom against the backdrop of the evolving paraphernalia of cinemas, and this mandates itself where one has attempted to analyze, if not really biographised, the trajectory of a star’s career. Unlike what the title promises, Pinto’s criticism of Helen’s cinema is nothing like any conventional biography (like the ranks of Dilip Kumar or Guru Dutt), and Pinto valiantly admits to this and defends this unfortunate lack of biographical touch by exclaiming that he could never really speak to the actor/dancer. I feel tempted to directly quote Pinto here, and let him answer this in his own way:
This is not a biography of Helen, except where the story of her screen transformation, that transcending of the limitations of age, gender and public memory, implicates her life. It will not answer the question: what is Helen really like? [. . .] because I have never met her. I sought to meet her but never got past the household help . . . This book, of course, by being about Helen, extends Helen further. The most common reaction that I received when I told people I was writing a book about Helen was, ‘Yes, she was popular and she was a good dancer, but does she merit a book?’ I do not know whether Helen the person merits one. I believe that Helen the persona created by Hindi cinema, crafted out of its need for Others, does” (pp. 8-9).
Pinto makes it obvious from the first few pages of his creative nonfiction that his locus of interest does not stand within an exploration of the personality/biography of Helen, but rather is situated outside, and onto the ever-growing gardens of her charismatic, cinematic presence-and-appearances and its varicoloured meanings for both himself, his readers, and cinephiles. He writes succintly, bravely, and that is where it begins to question, rather awaken, our ignorance about our beloved cinema, a blinded approach through which Indians – and others – have often perceived Bombaiya entertainments; Pinto challenges us through his routes of analogies between Helen and the cinema that constructed her, and here I speak of the persona, like Pinto himself. Helen was essentially renowned for her cabarets, her dance sequences, and ergo one finds a delight in Chapter Six, the cure of all the sorrows of the world, where Pinto classifies her songs on the basis of genre, ethos, and spectacle. So, we find Helen in “Haye Mere Paas Toh Aa” (Shikar, 1968) clothed for a song of misdirection, as she attempts to distract a cop (Sanjeev Kumar) from gathering pieces of evidence to prove her criminal involvements; or in a song of forgetfulness, like “Gham Chhod ke Manao Rangreli” from Gumnaam (1965), as she helps Nanda, Pran and Madan Puri pass their time, stranded on a deserted island. Helen was omnipresent – no full-stops.
Scholars of Indian Cinema often emphasize its construction upon contrasts, i.e. the cinema(s) dwell over conventional dichotomies – black vs. white; country vs. city; traditionality vs. modernity; heroine vs. vamp – and this fascination, as V. Mishra (2002) writes in Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, breathes from ancient scriptures (Vedas or Rāmāyana, for instance) that have played a monumental role in the makings of cinema in India and even other parts of South Asia. These scriptures have taught people like you and I the principles of living, and have also often threatened the dreams of progression, ironically. Ergo we find Helen against an army of Nirupa Roys or Asha Parekhs or Leela Chitnises, and this is pursued to accentuate the rise of the fallen woman. As in superhero narratives, the supervillain is predominantly situated/deployed to reflect the unbearable light of virtue which was the superhero; and so, Helen’s figure as a blonde, un-Hindu, western commodity was rubbed against the virgin purity and simplicity of the heroine. It’s so obvious that if you notice Image 2, you can see how Kitty’s scant clothings are highlighted against the salwar-kameez of Nanda at the background, and it’s not just this song; these images pervade across Gumnaam. Pinto’s criticism upholds the mirror of veracity, and he does that with a journalistic eye, incorrigible wit, and dark humour. I shouldn’t be writing this, but Pinto seems overtly-sympathetic for Bollywood’s representation of Goan and Chrisitian characters, and this is something his readers would easily perceive. Perhaps, his cultural and religious backgrounds carried him away, but his sympathy wasn’t unreasonable. Bollywood has significantly faltered; this is one such area where minority religions have been downplayed, mocked, convicted, murdered . . . damned. Pinto questions, further, if Helen’s Christian background was another reason why she was othered and used only for specific, special purposes, in specific, stereotyped styles, within specific, scandalous settings, by almost all of Bollywood. Reasons were not scarce for Pinto to examine.
The book merits through Pinto’s journalistic interest in cinema. Helen’s career becomes revitalised, as he takes us, the readers, for an odyssey that – unlike Joseph Campbell’s romantic hero’s – is not cyclic. Helen’s earliest beginnings from “Mr John, Ya Baba Khan, Ya Lala Roshandan” to her nostalgic return in “Aanken Khuli” read like Jerry Pinto’s lived experiences. There is passion, a sense of reverence that Pinto feels for the actor/dancer. Indeed, he justifies Helen’s sociocultural status in India, and the need for her stadom to be studded with a sub-religious vocabulary. The book might also help you update the collection of Helen’s hits, if you are obsessed like myself. I collected more than twenty songs that I had never heard of; thanks to Pinto for now I know . . . not just these ‘new’ songs, but also the realities that had glared my vision of this cinema. Sometimes I grow defensive, but have we seen perfection? Pinto’s criticism is not antagonistic; it is revelationary. Helen, Life and Times is a fascinating mix of creativity and opinion, and I know many of you might feel that a 2006 book no longer requires promotion. It’s true; it doesn’t, but an equal number of you might not have even heard of the book. Ergo, this review is not rooted in promotion or validation. It rather begins to help you make sense of a beloved cinema that is misconstrued and underrepresented. My review aims to promote Bombay cinema, as much as Pinto.
I call this cinema misconstrued out of choicelessness. Often consumed as a third-world/Orientalist product, Bollywood not only remains an eye-candy for people, but also a regular source of fascination, sarcasm/satire, or baseless criticism. Not to assume that the cinema is unproblematic! Pinto’s book, there, becomes a riveting, veracious account of Bollywood for both “the critic” and “the aficionado” alike. It paves the way to a reawakening of both prejudices and soft corners. The critic’s opinions are challenged and endorsed; the aficionado’s favouritism is re-questioned and condoned. It remains one of those raw texts on Bombay cinema that retain the flavours of the past, as it walks you and I alongside the pebbled pavement decorated by Helen’s footprints. The book stops, the breeze stops. It pushes the reader to believe that decades were just yesterday-old, and Pinto achieves that by his clever use of humour and creativity. One of the highest intellectual qualities about the work! The reader is bound to get enthralled by his language that is at-once compelling, smart, amusing, and incisive; one might even compare him to Shashi Tharoor or Salman Rushdie for language’s sake. Lastly, however, all remains relative. Readers are relative, metamorphosing, infinite. Helen could be infinitely divided, and so could our beloved cinema. For an adventure, I’d recommend picking up this blazing jewel. Let’s find out your Bollywood, your Helen Richardon . . . you might get surprised by the end of your reading.