Joined: 21 June 2005
He is a Roman Catholic man from Mahim, Mumbai. She traces her origins to France and Burma.
He describes what he does as "allegedly performing acts of journalism in the somnolent hours of the afternoon." She now stays home, resting feet that have helped her shimmy and shake on screens little and big, for over three decades. He, along with a million others, grew up watching her transform the film industry, her smile only marginally more enthusiastic than the effervescent movement of her limbs. She, in the meanwhile, simply danced, and kept on dancing.
And yet, Jerry Pinto has somehow managed to be a superb chronicler of the life of Helen.
His latest book, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, does what it obviously sets out to do. But it is the manner in which it manages that is, at times, more interesting than its subject. 'The item numbers of the '00s take themselves very seriously,' writes Pinto. "In the moue that is the standard sexualised challenge on every female dancer's face, I do not find the laughing invitation to naughtiness that I remember in Helen's. You would not dare laugh at – no, not even with -- these women…They're never out of step, but they're not having fun.'
The dates and facts and figures are all in place, of course. But added to these are Pinto's many observations -- analytical, funny, passionate, tongue-in-cheek. It makes for a very pleasing package.
When you think about it some more, Jerry Pinto is somehow the perfect man for the job. Like the subject he is besotted with, he is, in a sense, an outsider. After years spent doing everything from teaching mathematics and journalism to writing television scripts, editing a travel dotcom, dabbling in corporate communications and creating endearing works such as his popular first book Surviving Women, he is currently executive editor of Man's World magazine. In short, he is as far removed from standard commentators on Bollywood as possible.
Helen, on the other hand, is a Franco-Burmese dancing sensation who, by an incredibly tortuous route, came in from the cold, from another country, and found herself playing everything from vamp and seductress to spy, moll, cabaret queen and, lately, grandmother. In short, she was as far removed from standard entrants to Bollywood as possible.
So, how did this Roman Catholic man from Mahim find himself in the footsteps of our first, and indisputably original, item girl? Senior Features Editor Lindsay Pereira got Jerry Pinto to elaborate.
Jerry Pinto discusses his book Helen The Life and Times of An H-Bomb with Senior Features Editor Lindsay Pinto.
You tried getting in touch with Helen, but failed. Was she averse to the idea of someone telling her story?I suspect that Helen has probably had enough of people asking her inane questions about her life and times. If you think about it, there have been four films made on her. The first was James Ivory's Helen: Queen of the Nautch Girls, whose title itself seems exotic at this remove. Then there was Helen: Always in Step by Nasreen Munni Kabir, in which she was interviewed by Khalid Mohamed and it is clear that she did not enjoy playing herself in front of the camera, even though she comes across as warm and charming and unaffected. The third, Desperately Seeking Helen by the young Canadian filmmaker Eisha Marjara seemed to me to be a way of looking at the way in which Helen defined femininity as against the way Marjara's mother tackled the problems of being an immigrant. The fourth was Anuj Vaidya's video documentary, which, again, used the legend of Helen to explore the marginality of the gay man. She did not participate in the last two films.
Quite possibly, she simply did not feel that she had much to say. Or perhaps she simply did not know who I was, where I was coming from and how I was going to write about her. So, in the end, I gave up, but not without a heartfelt sigh…
Helen often served as a ready stereotype. She was usually present to depict the immorality of a Western or, more often than not, a Christian woman. Is that what attracted you to her story? Could you connect with that story at any level?Lily (or more often Lilly), Rosie, Kitty, Suzie…they were the good time girls, the ones who smoked cigarettes, danced in clubs, had a good time and paid for it by dying in the end. As a Roman Catholic boy who watched Hindi cinema, I think I could always see that Catholics of any description were seen as outsiders in commercial Hindi cinema.
In the book, I argue that this was simply a question of who went to see Hindi cinema and who didn't. While Bollywood was willing to make secular gestures by representing Muslims as positive characters, Parsis and Catholics could easily be caricatured because they were 'Westernised' -- they did not watch Hindi cinema. In that sense, therefore, yes, I felt that I was an outsider who was looking at another outsider.
Considering this is a look at a career spanning little over 30 years, your book is extremely well-researched. What was the hardest part -- collating all that data or trying to give it shape?
That is a perceptive question. The fun part was watching the movies. The difficult part was reading some 200,000 words of notes and trying to figure out what should stay and what should go. Should one mention the purple eye shadow and the green tights? And what about that wonderful boy band in the Beatle wigs in the background? Should one analyse the lyrics or should one describe the movements?
How does one sum up in a paragraph the huge baggy grab-all narrative so as to contextualise Helen? That was what took the greater part of the three years that went into the book.
Joined: 27 January 2005
Joined: 24 July 2005
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