Helen was the first item girl of Bollywood. In the 1950s and ‘60s, on screen the heroines were mostly Sati Savitri who were fully covered, endured sufferings, sacrificed and cried a lot. But Helen was the anti-heroine or ‘vamp’ who wore lovely Western clothes, drank alcohol, danced and had the unspeakable – premarital sex. So, while the heroine suffered throughout the movie, Helen had fun on screen. But off screen her life is anything but fun. She has struggled at each step of her life to survive.
A difficult beginning
- She was born in Burma to a Burmese mother and Anglo-Indian father. Her father died when she was little. Then her mother got married to a Britisher. After Japan’s occupation of Burma she and her family fled to Kolkata. They encountered starvation, sickness and death in their path.
- In Kolkata she dropped out of school and joined movies as a background dancer to support her family. Her first stint was in Awara (1951).
The wrong man
- It was difficult to survive as nobody in Bollywood. She needed security and companionship. Unfortunately the man she chose for the purpose was P N Arora, a B grade moviemaker, her senior by 27 years and not be relied on for anything, especially not with hard earned money of a lifetime.
- After 17 years of relationship she left P N Arora in 1974, heartbroken and bankrupt. He had swindled her of everything. Even her house was seized by the bank.
- She met scriptwriter Salim Khan in 1962. A friendship immediately bloomed. Salim helped her professionally and lent a shoulder to cry on. Being the top scriptwriter in those days he helped her in getting movies, especially after she became bankrupt.
- She worked hard throughout the 1970s, but by the end of the decade she was not getting any films. Bollywood did not need an ageing item girl.
A lonely life
- She was by this time entirely alone, having disowned her mother in 1971 after she had eloped with a driver. Salim again came to her rescue. In spite of being married, he married Helen.
- There was legally no problem for Salim to marry Helen because polygamy is allowed for Muslims in India. But personally he faced opposition from his first wife Salma and her children. However, Helen with her sweet nature won them over in a couple of years.
Her sweet nature
- She adopted a girl from a Mumbai slum and brought her up with the rest of her extended family. The girl, Arpita, is grown up and married now.
- After 1981, Helen has worked in movies sparingly. Her last film was Heroine (2012).
- She is having her ‘happily ever after’ with her family now. She can be seen with Salma and her children in public appearances. So after struggling her whole life, she achieved a happy ending in spite of being the ‘other woman’ in her husband’s life. No one else has achieved the happy ending as other woman in Bollywood, not even dream girl Hema Malini.
Helen is one in a million. Her dance numbers will make us dance forever.