This year marked a milestone for one of Bollywood's most endearing stars, Amitabh Bachchan, who celebrated his 70th birthday. The star of over 180 blockbusters and undoubtedly the Hindi film industry's reigning king. However, another evergreen star from Bollywood's golden era celebrated a milestone this year, Helen Richardson Khan, the dancer and actress who, for over 60 years has bewitched and enchanted cinema goers with her talent.
Helen has notched up an extraordinary amount of performances. She burst into the magical world of Bollywood, on a significant scale at the age of 17, in Shakti Samanta's 1957 film Howrah Bridge, with an outstanding performance of "Meera Naam Chin Chin Chu" (My Name is Chin Chin Chu) composed by O.P. Nayyar and sung by the legendary playback singer Geeta Dutt. Helen's energetic picturisation of the song instantly propelled her into the stratosphere of stardom. She would soon become the favourite of every director in Bollywood, as the queen of the item number dance, her versatility for choreography and broad range of dance styles, which encompassed classical Indian dance and a wealth of Western styles, such as jazz and tap, proved the keys to the kingdom.
Born Helen Jairag Richardson in Burma in 1939, to an Anglo-Indian father and Burmese mother, Helen's childhood was one of heartache and upheaval. Her father perished in World War II and in 1943 she and her family had to escape the Japanese invasion of Burma, finally settling in Mumbai. In an interview Helen revealed that most of the journey from Burma was taken on foot. Once she and her family had settled in Mumbai, life would be far from tranquil; at the age of 14 Helen abandoned her schooling, in order to support her mother. A chance word from a family friend, the actress and dancer Cuckoo, most famous for her role in Andaz (1949) which starred Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, who managed to secure work for Helen as a chorus dancer, in such films as Raj Kapoor's Awaara (1951).
Helen performing Bach Ke Kahan Jaoge by Asha Bhosle, for the 1969 film Yakeen.
Helen's hour-glass figure, fair skin and piercing eyes made her one of the most physically unique stars in Bollywood at the time, which proved very much to her advantage. She was the embodiment of a new India, of a generation which was ready to embrace fun and social liberalism. Throughout her long career, Helen picturised many songs by Asha Bhosle, another member of India's entertainment industry who, like Helen, embodied a refreshing sense of freedom. From the 1950's through to the 1980's, Helen worked on some of the most memorable films in Bollywood's history, alongside many of the golden greats, such as Dharmendra, Shammi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan.
In 1970, she was courted by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant of Merchant Ivory Productions, who chose her to perform a bit part in their film Bombay Talkie, which starred Shashi Kapoor and his wife Jennifer Kendal. Although a small role, it gave Western audiences a taste of Helen's magnificent talent, and she would soon start touring across Europe, staging grand dance shows in London, Paris and Berlin etc. Merchant Ivory again gave Western audiences a glimpse of Helen in a 1973 documentary, titled Helen: Queen of the Nautch Girls.
Helen performing Nikle The Kahan Jane Ke Liye by Asha Bhosle, for the film Bahu Begum 1967
Although made famous for her dancing, Helen proved a versatile actress, and has been nominated for five Filmfare awards, winning once in 1979, for her role in Mahesh Bhatt's film Lahu Ke Do Rang. Personally, Helen faced upheaval and rejection, until 1981 when she met and later married the actor and screen writer Salim Khan, becoming Step-Mother to Bollywood's current kings Salman, Arbaaz and Sohail Khan.
Unlike most of her female peers in the industry, Helen has not suffered the indignity of financial ruin nor a steady slide into obscurity. Her marriage to Salim Khan has given her strength both personally and professionally, she is now considered the Grandmother of Bollywood. Since retiring from dancing, Helen has concentrated on acting and has worked on some groundbreaking projects, including one of India's few gay themed films Dunno Y...Na Jaane Kyon (2010) by Sanjay Sharma.
Helen remains one of the most endearing stars that Bollywood has ever produced, beautiful, ethereal and talented; she has inspired countless generations and continues to be a much loved fixture of India's entertainment industry.
Follow Ben Mirza on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ohmymirza