Bollywood Birthdays

Helen of the dance floor, in 10 songs

Born on November 21, 1938, and dazzling viewers all the way to eternity.

There are club songs in Indian films performed either by designated dancers or stars making a special appearance. Then there is the Helen song, a genre unto itself. Helen didn’t invent the club number but she owned it through her fabulous footwork, exotic looks, even more exotic costumes and irresistible grin. Born in Burma on November 21, 1938, to a Burmese mother and an Anglo-Indian father, Helen arrived in India along with her family in 1943 during WW II. She started out as a chorus dancer in the early 1950s, and made her breakthrough as a solo dancer in Howrah Bridge (1958). Till the late ’80s, Helen was a key element of all kinds of films across languages and genres, appearing either in solo dance numbers or a vamp. Here are ten of her most memorable songs.

Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu, Howrah Bridge (1958) The breakthrough number, sung by Geeta Dutt, composed by OP Nayyar, and performed with gusto by Helen pretending to be a Chinese dancer.

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Ooi Maa Ooi Maa, Parasmani (1963) The club song, yes, but the classical number too – Helen puts on a traditional costume and sways to Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s beats.

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The instrumental title track from Cha Cha Cha (1964) This melodrama about the lopsided relationship between a blind woman and a conservative singer was designed as a vehicle for Chandrashekhar (he wrote, directed, produced and essayed the lead role). But Cha Cha Cha offers Helen a rare chance to be a heroine. Here she is in the opening track with Bela Bose.

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Is Duniya Mein Jeena Ho To, Gumnaam (1965) An unofficial remake of the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, Gumnaam has a memorable Shankar-Jaikishen score, including a piece of philosophical advice from the woman who has lived her life on her own terms. Helen got a Filmfare nomination as Best Supporting Actress for Gumnaam.

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O Haseena Zulfonwali, Teesri Manzil (1966) Helen, co-star Shammi Kapoor, director Vijay Anand and RD Burman prove to be an explosive combination.

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Aa Jaane Jaan, Inteqam (1969) Asha Bhosle usually sang for Helen, and this is a rare foray into cabaret territory by Lata Mangeshkar. The now-notorious number features a chained man with blackface inside a golden cage and Helen gracefully jerking her hips on the outside.

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Piya Tu Ab To Aaja, Caravan (1971) The one in which RD Burman gasps and moans in the background as Helen’s Monica drowns her sorrows in alcohol and waits for the darling of her dreams to show up while she prances about in a sparkly red dress.

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Aao Na Gale Lagaon Na, Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972) Helen plays Kamini, a mean-spirited seductress who repeatedly tries to woo Rajesh Khanna’s character. In this hit number, the matching pink outfits, Asha Bhosle trilling in the background, and RD Burman’s music don’t seem to be helping.

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Yeh Mera Dil Pyar Ka Deewana, Don (1978) There are “seduction by Helen” songs, and then there is this great number composed by Kalyanji Anandji and featuring Amitabh Bachchan as a reluctant recipient of Helen’s signature moves.

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Gaate Thay Pehle Aleke, Khamoshi (1996) Helen has been occasionally appearing in dramatic roles ever since she stopped dancing in the ‘80s. In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s debut feature Khamoshi, she plays Manisha Koirala’s grandmother, Maria Braganza.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.