Happy International Women’s Day! Another International Woman, Helen!

I wrote this as part of my series on Salman Khan, but I’m gonna rewrite and refocus it a bit to give Helen the spotlight she deserves.

Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge, this is just how it looks to me based on publicly available sources.

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.

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.

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Salman and his two mothers, both leaning on him equally

Helen, after decades of dancing dawn to dusk and beyond, retired. She stayed home, she got to know her new family, and eventually she had a daughter of her own when Salim brought home the little homeless girl who lived at their gate after her mother died. From dozens of films a year, suddenly she was down to one special appearance every few years. And they were truly “special” appearances. Helen had never been allowed to be “special” on film, to have an actual personality and character, she was just the sexy dancer. But now she was given roles that removed the “sex” and showed the glowing special person behind it that had always been there. A Helen song isn’t about the skin show, or the jiggling body, it’s about the big joyous smile she wears, the way she just seems so happy to be moving and alive and sharing this moment with us watching her. When Helen returned in the 90s playing mother and grandmother roles, that is what we saw. This woman with a big big smile and glowing light inside.

And after decades of having her producer/manager keep her isolated on set, now she had her loving son Salman introducing her on set. Her return to the screen was chaparoned by Salman, she primarily appeared in his movies. Not playing his mother or grandmother necessarily, but in films where he was around on set, there to help and encourage and make her feel safe and happy. Here, here is one of her first returns, playing the grandmother who was the only source of light and love and happiness in the life of the sad little girl who would grow up to be Manisha Koirala and Salman Khan’s love interest:

So that’s Helen! Born in Burma, survived horrific tragedy as a child, controlled and abused her whole adulthood, finally found a family to love and respect and protect her, and through it all, she kept a smile on her face.

2 thoughts on “Happy International Women’s Day! Another International Woman, Helen!

  1. Arpita is not Helen’s daughter, even adopted. She was adopted by Salma and Salim, and brought up by them in their house. Helen has a separate household. You have chosen not to dwell on the upheaval in the Khan household over Helen, and that’s fine, but it’s important to acknowledge that it created great fissures that lasted for years, especially between Salman and his father, and whose impact is still felt today.

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  2. “Helen had never been allowed to be “special” on film, to have an actual personality and character, she was just the sexy dancer.”

    I don’t think that’s accurate. My understanding is that by the early 60s, Helen (alongwith comedian Johnny Walker) was considered a “must have” for Hindi films. And I think, from the 60s onwards, she rarely appeared in a film just to do an item number. She almost always had an actual role in the film, often very significant supporting roles (ex. she’s one of the two leading ladies opposite Shammi Kapoor in both Chinatown and Pagla Kahin Ka). As a matter of fact, by the 60s she was big enough that her “dance-only” appearances were billed as “Special/Guest” appearances. Salim may indeed have rescued Helen on the personal front but I don’t think he’s the one who made her “special” professionally – she did that herself and long before he appeared on the scene.

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