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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Goodies on youtube - Helen Queen of Nautch Girls (1973)

I sometimes wonder how we bloggers would survive without youtube. Take me, for example. I had a hectic week and then a super hectic weekend watching James Garner, Doris Day, Fred MacMurray, et al, over at TCM, leaving me with no time to write up a review! So, I decided to go fishing in the youtube seas for some interesting videos to talk about and guess what I found - a 1973 documentary on Bollywood's beloved twinkletoes Helen. The film was directed and narrated by Anthony Korner for Merchant-Ivory Productions and can also be found in the DVD extra features of Bombay Talkies. The documentary tells us a little something about Helen from her difficult beginnings to her climb as Bollywood's most graceful and prolific dancer. And here it is for your viewing pleasure.

I could identify some of the movies the clips were taken from - Prince (1969), Caravan (1971), Gumnaam (1965), Inteqam (1969) and Howrah Bridge (1958). What other movies am I missing?
And here's another video of Helen dancing and voicing sentiments that I am certain at least some of my readers will sympathise with! The movie is Mohabbat Isko Kehte Hain from 1965, starring Shashi Kapoor and Nanda.
Dont you think her Kathak here is more graceful than Vyjayantimala's in the Prince clip of the documentary?


  1. I love this documentary, it's *almost* worth buying the M-I films on DVD that it's on as an extra...*almost*

    :-) Helen rules over everything.

  2. Helen is an amazing dancer! Love her!

  3. Memsaab, it *almost* makes it worth buying M-I DVDs. But even here, I find M-I not entirely satisfying. They do talk a bit about Helen but not enough and there are no comments from her to accompany the clips they picked. Plus, the narrators comments on *popular* Hindi movies as entertainment for the *masses* strike me as a bit snobbish!

    Nicki, Helen was certainly an amazing dancer and seemed to adapt beautifully to all forms of dancing required in movies!

  4. Re. the narrator's comments, I think Tommydan1, who posted this on YouTube, describes the film accurately:

    "It's arrogant; it's condescending; it's wrong in places; but for Helen fans it's still fascinating."

    But if you want to see a documentary clip that's even more arrogant and condescending, check out this Louis Malle clip:

    The first half or so of this clip reminded of the M-I Helen doc, only with the obnoxiousness level turned up. (And look who he's insulting - how dare he!)

  5. Richard, thanks for telling me about the comments. Didnt check those when I played the clips. Agree that the documentary is arrogant and condescending but it was probably not considered that in 1973. A lot of educated Indians then agreed (with M-I) that Hindi movies were "entertainment for the masses" while the intellectuals watched Hollywood movies. Indeed right upto late 60s "good" theatres in big cities primarily showed Hollywood movies!

    The Louis Malle clip that you've linked sounds like the film-maker has a personal grudge against Tamil cinema! Plus, couldnt understand how he could find a super-thin young Hema "chubby"!

  6. Re: I would think that intellectuals and the older, educated people those days would've seen cinema as "lower-class" due to it's novelty value amongst the masses. They would've probably be into literature, than Hollywood films.

    It would be great if someone could name all the films in this documentary.

  7. Anon, have been reading Bollywood: A History by Mihir Bose where he comments that the posh cinema houses of South Bombay (and of other upmarket areas in India's metro cities) chose to play Hollywood movies for the rich [intelligentsia]. Bollywood made its entrance in these theatres in late 60s and early 70s when import restrictions reduced the supply of foreign films to India. Bollywood (and local language) films used to be played in cheap and dirty theatres while the government - run by people who thought movies were *entertainment for the masses* - heavily taxed them!

    The documentary makers should have provided information on the clips so none of us need go on fishing expeditions to try and find out what films they were from! Am still hoping someone in blogland will be able to help.

  8. Hi Bollyviewer, I enjoy reading your blog and have also enjoyed your last piece about Helen. Thanks for reminding me about her! It has been a while since I've seen any of her songs which I remember used to be on the television so often when I was a kid. I am definitely going to spend sometime on youtube now!
    I must say the documentary didn't really thrill me though. The narrator seems so distant from the subject he is talking about - maybe it was just the style in those days! Also calling Helen 'the star' even while showing a clip of Vijayanthimala gives one a feeling that the whole subject wasn't well researched.

  9. Oh this is so interesting!!! I'm going on a you-tube search, properly inspired by you...:D

  10. Thanks Anon#2 and keep visiting. Youtube has a lot of old DoorDarshan stuff, too - some old telly series and several ads and videos that used to play on TV in the good-old-days. They bring back such fond memories!

    You're right, the narrator does make his distance from Helen and Hindi movies very clear throughout the narration. For e.g. his statements about the *Indian masses* whose only source of entertainment (in the absence of TV) is movies, makes it so clear that he isnt one of them! And then the way he narrates Helen's life sounds very much like an outsider looking at an exotic phenomenon. Still, its the only documentary on Helen I've ever seen and it does share some interesting facts about her that I never knew - I'll give M-I and Arthur Korner that.

    Shweta, you must! I discovered youtube only a year ago and cant imagine how I lived before that!

  11. These are the films the clips are from: Prince, Jahan Pyar Milay, Gumnam, Nadan, Sachhai, Intequam, Caravan, Howrah Bridge, Sinbad Alladin Alibaba, and Bombay Talkie.


  12. Wow! Should have known you'd know all about them!!! :-) Thanks a lot for sharing. I think I've seen Sindbad Alladdin Alibaba in the dim distant past but am still looking for Jahan Pyaar Miley...

  13. Yes, all this is great stuff... I particularly enjoyed the typewriter dance bit: that must have made the architect/accessorist so proud ("Wow, it actually works - thank God!") and what balance Shashi and Helen must have had... The keys really move!

  14. Yves, the typewriter dance is one of my favorites, too. It shows up in Bombay Talkie but unfortunately not as a complete song. Shashi's balancing act was good (Helen's balance didnt surprise me). It would have been great to see them do it through one whole song, though.

  15. ""
    I had a hectic week and then a super hectic weekend watching James Garner, Doris Day, Fred MacMurray, et al, over at TCM, leaving me with no time to write up a review! So, I decided to go fishing in the youtube seas for some interesting videos to talk about
    I don't how the first thing (hectic film watching, no time) leads to the second (youtubing) and third (writing).

  16. What can I say, Hans... Where there is youtube, there is time to spend there!