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Product of a Historical Moment

Shohini Ghosh

By Jerry Pinto
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2006, pp. 256, Rs. 275.00


Superstars and cult figures are products of historical moments. Emerging at particu- lar socio-historical junctures, cult figures in cinema begin to embody much more than just the character they play. Film and Cultural studies have tried to understand the concept of stardom and iconicity as sustained by a dual engagement with the site of fictional performance and the fears and aspirations in the world outside. Helen, dancer par excellence and iconic vamp of Bombay cinema, is one such figure.   Popular cinema scholars and commentators agree that song and dance sequences are significant narrative tropes. Despite their artifice and flight from reality, song sequencers are elaborately staged fantasies that allow people to transcend the material and mundane realities of everyday life. Dayanita Singh has a remarkable series of photographs of choreographer Saroj Khan exploring precisely this idea. Moreover, song and dance sequences have always had a special relationship to women both in the film and in the audience. In male-driven narratives, especially in the pre-nineties films, song and dance sequences allowed female protagonists to escape the narrative confines of the script and conventional expectations by indulging in excess, badness, abandon and revelry. The notion of transgression is central to iconic figures and Helen’s persona embodies this idea. She always played the westernized moral “other” who stood in opposition to the chaste “Indian” heroine. She was the vamp and cabaret dancer who performed in the shadowy but alluring interiors of the nightclub. She drank, smoked and danced with erotic abandon and unlike the heroine had no desire to be virginal or monogamous. The fantasmatic vision of transgressive femininity that Helen embodied is powerfully articulated in Eisha Marjarara’s moving autobiographical documentary Desperately Seeking Helen. Unfortunately, Helen’s huge popularity has not generated the same amount of academic debate and discussion. I have no doubt though that this imbalance will be more than rectified by future scholarly work.   Jerry Pinto’s book is the first full-length discussion of Helen and is therefore invaluable for anyone who chooses to work on Helen. Comprising 16 chapters and an exhaustive filmography (one of the book’s best achievements) Pinto presents a fund of information for Helen watchers. The book has no interviews with Helen as she refused to meet the author. While this may prove to be disappointing for some people, I do not see it as a disadvantage because the book is not so much ...

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