Thursday, 7 September 2017

My current vintage obsession: Helen

Helen in the Bollywood film Caravan
Helen in Caravan (1971)
Vix definitely mentioned Helen ages ago on her blog, so that’s where I first heard of her, and she’s become my latest vintage obsession. It’s probably at least a little because she’s a mix of Burmese, Indian and European, like my grandfather’s family, and like them had to move from Burma/Myanmar to India during the Second World War. My family came to England, but Helen's stayed in India, and between the 1950s and 1970s became one of the most famous dancers in Bollywood, dubbed ‘Queen of the Nautch Girls’. Nautch is an old performance art; the dancers were almost legendarily alluring. I don't know enough about it to know if they all moved like Helen, but to be nicknamed Queen of them all is no mean feat.

So I watched my first few YouTube clips of Helen to see what all the fuss was about. And ay caramba, her routines are hot sauce – I can imagine a Eurasian burlesque artiste could do worse than make up a routine in homage to her. Fan magazines dubbed her 'The H-Bomb'. Also, she is giving me major makeup goals. And jewellery goals. But not clothes goals. I wouldn't do that to you.
A young Helen wearing a cheongsam and shaking a tambourine
Helen in China Town (1962)
And seeing the clips has started to stir a wider interest in retro Bollywood in me. The rock’n’roll numbers in 1950s movies, where the ladies rock circle skirts and saris with equal aplomb, the swinging fringes on the hip chicks in 1960s ones… In the ’70s Bollywood chaps were rocking a white flared suit well ahead of John Travolta, and people who know more about dancing than I do can argue over who boogied better. Okay, some of the dance routines, especially in the 1970s, are gloriously cheesy, an explosion of glitter and cheekiness and dodgy moustaches you wouldn't usually expect anywhere but Las Vegas, but they're still utterly brilliant. If you're going to be 1970s, be exuberantly 1970s, I say – be Studio 54 and Biba, be glam rock and Cher, be Boney M, don't be The Winter of Discontent. BE MORE BOLLYWOOD.

So now I need to see if we have any old Hindi films on cable – there could be all sorts of channels I've never explored, and there might be some movies in the 'On demand' option. I don’t know if Mr Robot would be prepared to watch a whole movie with me, mind. He doesn't like musicals in English. Though musicals in English don't usually have a Helen.
Helen dancing in a gilded cage in the Bollywood film Caravan
More from Caravan.
Perhaps I’ll have something other than art deco architecture to look out for when I’m in Mumbai. No, not Helen herself - I'm not some mad stalker - but perhaps there'll be a cinema showing one of her films, a Mumbai arthouse cinema. It'd be great to see a classic film in that setting.

14 comments :

  1. I think you could manage the clothes (maybe not a daytime look)along with the makeup.

    I grew up in a city with a large Indian population, and as a child those groovy Bollywood posters people put in shop windows probably had a direct impact on my taste in fashion.

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    1. I love all the colours and sparkle. It never seems to work as well in a drab British climate. I notice that when I go to southern Spain; they wear brighter colours and bigger jewellery too. The light here is too muted for it to look as good.

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  2. Love the Bollywood movies but it's the classical Indian music that I love best of all. I shall have to check Helen out - she clearly is a superstar!

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  3. With your hair, the bright eye makeup would look amazing - go for it! I'd never heard of this lady, I will indeed check her out. x

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    1. Her eyeliner is amazing. I love the trick of putting it along the bottom of the eye and flicking from there. Mine always gets caught up in the fold of my eyelid - Pete reckons that's probably a bit of my own Burmese ancestry coming through - so going from the bottom would probably work better.

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  4. Nobody did the '70's as well as India did the '70's!
    In a lot of ways India is still in the '70's. Earth tone home decor is still in fashion in India in the way of browns, browns, burnt orange, goldenrod, and avocado green. Ridiculously overstuffed sofas & recliners in naughahyde, vinyl, & velour too. Polyester & acrylic still reign supreme for clothing too in every brilliant hue as well as earth tones. Despite the searing heat most of the year here- Indians put up with scratchy, hot, miserable synthetic fibers because they are so long wearing. You'll see Indian men in polyester contrast stitched "leisure" suits in every brown you can think of . Everything from saris to pantsuits of every color for the ladies.
    I always associate Helen with the famed "Mera Nam Chin Chin Chu" from the movie Howrah Bridge. Hello Mister how do you do?
    My father lived in Mumbai for a few years post WWII. I was surprised in photos that most Indians wore western clothing at that time (men in suits & ties or khaki pleated trousers & women in skirts, nylons, heels, & button up blouses.)

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    1. There's a British-Asian comedy sketch series, Goodness Gracious Me, which has one recurring character who insists that everything comes from India. The one where he insists John Travolta is Indian cracks me up "Check him out in Saturday Night Fever: white suit, kipper tie, big flares. You can tell by the way he used his walk; he's a Hindi man, no time to talk!" (Damn, I love that show. The Six Million Rupee Man always makes me laugh. Sanjeev Bhaskar would've got my vote to be Doctor Who, for sure.)

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  5. Be still my beating heart, H-Bomb is my dream woman! I can sit and watch Piya Tu Ab To Aaja on You-Tube endlessly!
    I've got Jerry Pinto's book about Helen (only available in India) - you're very welcome to borrow it if you like.
    Jewel Thief, Caravan and Don are all well worth a watch. You'll also spot her dancing on a typewriter in Merchant Ivory's Heat and Dust - I could bore for England about psychedelic Bollywood! xxx

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    1. Dil Ka Lena Dena Humne is my favourite right now. She is hot sauce in that one.

      Do a post on psychedelic Bollywood! The world needs it.

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  6. Much to my shame I have to admit I am not familiar with Helen, so I'll have to check her out ... I love a bit of Bollywood, though. xxx

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    1. Do check her out, she's magnificent.

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  7. I love Bollywood films but have never come across Helen until reading this post. She is superb. What a dancer, and the costumes, hair and make-up. I think that I have another style icon to add to the collection. That you for posting this. I can see why she has become an obsession. :) Xx

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    1. I think if the whole world were a bit more Helen, it would be a better place :-) A whole lot sexier and more sparkly.

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