Hindi Film 101: Salman Khan Part 2, Helen and Heartbreak and Becoming the Head of the Household

Sorry, this is more stuff that happened before Salman became famous. But it’s important! These early experiences are what define us as a person. You can’t understand Salman without understanding his family and background.

Non-Usual Disclaimer PLEASE READ: Salman has done bad things. But he has also done good things, and he has had bad things happen to him in his life. The bad he has done does not erase the good, any more than the good erases the bad. I will treat him with the same empathy and compassion I would offer to any other human being in this series. I am not trying to excuse him, just to understand him.

When Salman was born, his father was a struggling actor and part-time writer, living without support in Bombay. And his mother was a very young woman who had lost her family and her whole previous life when she married for love. They lived in small rooms and struggled, Salman became his mother’s whole world, her best friend and savior. His father saw him as their future, as the seedling of a new life in this new place. After Salman came, in rapid succession, his sister Alvira, his brother Sohail, and finally Arbaaz. The group of 4 became a tight team but Salman was definitively the leader, the responsible one.

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The happiest times of Salman’s childhood were when they visited the family compound in Indore. There, he could just be free. He rode horses, went on adventures, played with his cousins, was one of a crowd with no special expectations or responsibilities. Back in Bombay, he struggled in school, struggled with his siblings, was always on display and always in charge.

That is how Salim was raised. It’s the same childhood Dilip Kumar describes in his biography, the same childhood many people from Pathani families (or other old-fashioned wealthy rural households) enjoyed. A large combined family, many brothers and their wives living together in one household. The oldest brother is the head of everything, not just for his siblings but for their children and their children’s children. And for the whole massive community that a wealthy Pathani household includes. There could be easily 100 or more people for whom one man is the leader, his siblings and their children, the elderly of the previous generation, servants, distant relatives fallen on hard times, even strangers who wander in and need food and housing. Being the oldest son of this kind of household is a lifetime responsibility and a full time job that you are expected to shoulder with dignity and acceptance. Salim started fresh in Bombay, but still honored his older brother as the head of the family, sent his children back to Indore to learn that lesson and understand their values and way of life. Salman understood that this is what would be expected of him in Bombay, this is the household he must build and head. What Salman could not have expected was that he would become head of that household at age 16, before his own life had had a chance to begin.

In 1938 or 39 (accounts vary), a young Burmese and Spanish dancer and trained nurse gave birth to a daughter. Her father was officially listed as a British officer, and she was given the name “Helen Richardson”. A few years later, her mother married a French officer and gave birth to a little boy. And then in 1944, the Japanese overran Burma, the French officer disappeared into the war and Helen, her pregnant mother, and her baby brother fled Burma with what they could carry, ahead of the Japanese army. With thousands of others, they slowly walked two thousand miles, Burma to India. By the time they reached India, half the group had died and been buried along the way. Helen carried her brother and tried to care for him as he cried in hunger. Her mother stopped halfway and collapsed, miscarried the child she was carrying behind a bush, and moved on. They finally reached India, just as her baby brother was near death. Two months in hospital saved their lives. Only for her brother to die of smallpox as they watched, helpless, in their new refugee camp in Calcutta. Helen and her mother left Calcutta and went to Bombay after that, a new start away from the tragedies of their past.

Helen and her mother managed to find a home in the chawls of Bombay. Helen’s mother heard of a neighbor, one who lived a good life, always had food and clothes and a place to live, who made her living as a dancer in the films. She decided her daughter would have that life. Helen was pulled out of school, instead she spent dawn to dusk dancing. Her mother kept time with a stick, and used the same stick to hit her legs when she fell down in exhaustion. She got her first job as a background dancer in 1951, when she was either 12 or 13, recommended by their neighbor Cuckoo (then the most prominent item dancer in Hindi film). 3 years later, she was rehearsing on set when a limousine pulled up and her heart stopped and she felt like her life was about to change. A man got out, debonair, white haired, well dressed. He came over to her and offered to change her life. This was PN Arora. He was already a successful producer and director of Hindi film, and married. Helen was 15. He was 42. For the next 20 years, he controlled her life.

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Helen and Cuckoo dancing together, Helen on the right.

For 20 years, PN made Helen dance, dawn to dusk, every day. She would appear on set, do her dancing turn, smile and be friendly, and then be whisked away to her next job. And then the next and the next. While the audience whistled and shouted for her onscreen, in sets she somehow inspired enormous respect. Everyone cared for Helen. If a new cameraman or spot boy dared to whistle or react while she performed, he would be pulled aside and told of his error. Helen was a hard worker and an artist and that is how she was treated by everyone in the industry. But no one ever really got close to her. PN wouldn’t allow it, he wanted her working every minute and friendships got in the way of work. Friendships would also get in the way of PN, maybe let Helen realize that she could survive without him, that she was no longer that traumatized 15 year old starving refugee.

And then in the early 70s, PN was done with her. Helen was already struggling to find work, the heroine’s were more and more likely to do their own “item songs” as tastes began to change, there was less of a place for a pure dancer in the industry. And she was old, in her mid-30s, her career was on the way down. PN was old too, nearing retirement, he no longer needed a young mistress to entertain him, was more interested in his wife and children who could care for him. And so, suddenly, Helen was “out”. The jobs dried up, and there was no one who would help her.

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Helen, “old”. She was 40 in Don.

Salim Khan had known Helen for years, as had most people. He knew her perhaps slightly better than others because in his early years as a struggling B actor he had co-starred with her in one of the B movies where she was given actual lines and an acting part. Mostly though, he just felt bad for her and cared enough to do something about it. He would have, and has, done the same thing many times for other people. Salim was raised to believe that the whole world was his family and he should help anyone who crossed his path. And so when he heard that Helen had hit hard times, he sought her out and befriended her. He helped her find work, by now he was part of Salim-Javed and could easily write in scenes specifically for her dancing. Mostly he was her friend, the first person in her life to see her as a person and treat her that way, to help her without expecting anything in return. Helen could not help growing fond of him, growing to love him, although she knew it was wrong because everyone in the industry knew that Salim was married with 4 children. Not just married, but married for love, to a woman who loved him enough to have left her family for him.

Salim fell in love with Helen too. This wasn’t exactly shocking, she was a beautiful “fallen” woman who needed him. Men through out history have fallen in love with beautiful women who need them. What was shocking was that he decided to marry her.

Helen had spent two decades being the other woman for a married man. She was used to it. Respectable society ignored her, she was never going to have children or a family, it was a sad lonely life. But it was all she deserved, as a broken fallen woman. And then Salim stunned her by offering her marriage, public love, respect, a family. This is not unheard of in Hindi film, Kamal Amrohi offered respectable marriage to Meena Kumari, Dharmendra to Hema Malini. But to offer it to Helen, the biggest sexiest item girl in Indian film, and an aging woman with a past not a young innocent girl, that was shocking. Salim did it, and saved her, gave Helen the love and respect she had never had before in her life because he loved her and thought she deserved love and respect.

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This is how the whole world saw Helen, but Salim saw her as a person, a mother, a wife, part of a family

When Salim married Helen in 1981, he did at once the best and worst deed of his life. From Helen’s side, this was unimaginable grace and kindness. From the side of Salma, his faithful wife of 17 years who walked out on everything for the sake of his love, it was unimaginable cruelty. It’s not clear when she learned that Salim was not just going to keep Helen as a mistress, but was going to marry her. But what is known is that it broke her. For a year, she cried without stopping. She cut off contact with her husband, isolated herself with her children. And Salman, the oldest, was left to deal with his devastated mother, his confused siblings, and all the details of the household that his mother was no longer able to process.

Salma was the first to forgive. I don’t know if it was a moment of grace on her part, coming to understand that a man can love two women equally. Or if it was a moment of desperation, seeing that she could not go on like this and had to find a way to change. But everyone agrees that Salma reached out to Salim, suggested they find a way to make peace and unite the two households. Her children were slower to forgive. But eventually, they found a way, lead by Salman. And that is when Salman truly became the head of the household. Salim is still respected in the family, his wishes obeyed, but I think since the Helen marriage, it is Salman that his siblings, his father, and both his mothers look to to guide the family. At age 17, he became the head of a household of of three elders, and 3 children.

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Salman and his two mothers, both leaning on him equally

Salman was still officially in school at this point, but school was never a good fit for him. In many ways Salman is a throwback, he can ride and fight and inspire others to follow him. He can’t do well on tests, he can’t sit and study a book, he would be terrible working 9 to 5. He would make a wonderful feudal lord. His life was always outside of school, riding and wrestling on the family estate in Indore, raising his siblings and comforting his mother at home, and later hanging out at the gyms and the film sets trying to build a career.

Salman was the son of Salim Khan, but by the time he was ready to start a film career, that didn’t mean much. The household was surviving on the money remaining from Salim’s writing career, there was always enough, but never extra. Salim had receded from the industry since his break-up with Javed. And he had never been good at “playing the game” anyway, none of the Khans are. To them, anyone who enters their household is family, whether they are a powerful producer or a broken forgotten item dancer. Salim had few old friends he could call on to give his son a chance, and would not have considered doing so anyway. Salman was the oldest son, it was up to him to make his own way. He was there to support Salim, not the other way around.

Salman’s first chances came the same way they would have come to any other young hopeful. He was spotted at the gym and on the beach, noticed for his shocking handsomeness and good muscles. His first role was in Biwi Ho To Aisi, playing a supporting part. And then he heard of a new film being cast by a new young director, Sooraj Barjatya. Salman heard the narration and immediately recognized the brilliance of the movie and desperately wanted the chance. He was offered the part, knew it could make his career. But he still put a condition on it. He would take it, so long as Mohnish Behl, his good friend and fellow struggler, was hired on for the villain’s role. Salman was offered the first big good thing in his life, and immediately turned around and handed half of it to someone else.

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And 30 years later he would launch Mohnish’s daughter in Notebook.
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15 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Salman Khan Part 2, Helen and Heartbreak and Becoming the Head of the Household

    • Isn’t it? He’s this boring old man now, “Salman’s father”, but he had a life that didn’t really fit with the way anyone else lived their life.

      On Tue, Jun 4, 2019 at 4:28 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. I never knew all this. Explains Salman in ways I never understood and explains why people like Kat and Shah Rukh are so loyal.

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        • Doesn’t it? It’s not just Kat, all of Salman’s girlfriends have had questionable histories, and all of them have been welcomed and loved by his family. Including his rumored current one, an ex-model with a messy divorce who landed up in India a few years back.

          On Tue, Jun 4, 2019 at 7:50 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. His father’s bigamy is probably why he doesn’t believe in marriage. He’s seen the pain it caused for his mother and the whole family. I don’t think he trusts himself to stick to only one woman so he doesn’t want to marry. In that sense, it’s a very mature decision. I also think that’s why he and Katrina broke up because she really wants marriage and kids and that traditional life that Salman won’t be able to give her.

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    • I agree. Salman’s situation is both common and uncommon, the double marriage and joint family is unusual. But a young man who watched his father cheat and destroy his marriage at a formative age is common, and that resulting in self-doubt and reluctance to risk commitment is common.

      I was just reading that early on he wanted to marry, his very first girlfriend (back when he was around 20), and then Sangeeta, both came close to marriage. But he also cheated on both of them. I can imagine that as he grew older, and looked at his father and his own personal history, he decided it was better not to risk making a commitment he might break. Kat seems to be the one relationship where he never seriously considered marriage and, strangely enough, also seems to perhaps be the one relationship where he never cheated. Again, that seems common, doesn’t it? That the cheating and considering marriage are related to each other?

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  3. I’m pretty sure that by age 17, Salman was no longer enrolled in school. It’s well-known that he dropped out of St. Stanislaus school, Bandra around the 9th grade (aged 14-15).

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    • He managed a few years of college before he started acting. But I think he dropped out of a lot of schools, then went off to Indore for vacation, came back and went to school again. I am sure he had ADHD and probably some other issues that just made school impossible for him at the same time that he managed other areas of life well.

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  4. So Salma and Helen and all the kids live in the same house together? That is quite something. Isn’t the family Muslim? So Salim presumably could be married to both women at once. Or am I missing something?

    Bharat is playing at a theater close to me that doesn’t normally show Indian films so I think they are opening wide. And give the reviews, it makes sense. I’m excited to see this one in a theater! I wonder if Priyanka has any regrets.

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    • Legally, a Muslim in India can have multiple wives. Having multiple wives is traditional for both Muslims and Hindus in India, the formation of different marriage laws for the two religions was a major political issue, and still is a major political issue, it is since then that it became less common for Hindus to have multiple wives. Although it still happens, for instance Dharmendra married twice too but is Hindu, he just became Muslim on paper in order to have the second marriage. My impression is that the socially acceptable non-scandalous preference would be one wife, but the absolute greatest possible scandal would be divorce. So two wives and no divorce is a better option.

      Yep, Salma and Helen and Salim and the 3 boys (and the two girls until they got married) and their daughters-in-law and grandchildren all live together. Salma and Helen are best friends now, lots of adorable photos of them together. And all the children (lead by Salman) refer to them equally as both their mothers. For example, when asked about his religion Salman will say that his father is Muslim, and he has a Hindu and a Christian mother.

      On Wed, Jun 5, 2019 at 9:32 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Agree with all of the above comments, just want to add… Walking 2000 miles is insane. Isn’t that like walking Chicago to SF, including crossing the mountain ranges? Such respect for Helen for all that she has endured and nevertheless pursued.

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    • Yep, it’s insane. And it’s not just walking, it’s managing to find food and help along the way. She said villagers would give them food, sometimes the British army would offer medical help, but mostly it was just walking and hoping.

      On Thu, Jun 6, 2019 at 11:31 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. I wonder if he always was called Salman or if that was a choice made by his father as his son entered the filmindustry at the age of just about 20.
    Salman was born in Indore and I think, this place gave him a kind of freedom, of well-being he couldn’t experience otherwise.
    Helen’s Youth was new to me, but I knew that Salman was 15 when his father married Helen and had to experience the terrible hurt and distress of his mother. May be already earlier but I think definitely then he would have a love/hate relationship with his father that would define his life (and still does).

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