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the Complete Review
the complete review - film / biography


Jerry Pinto

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To purchase Helen

Title: Helen
Author: Jerry Pinto
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 218 pages
Availability: Helen - US
Helen - UK
Helen - Canada
Helen - India
  • The Life and Times of an H-Bomb
  • With numerous photographs/movie stills
  • With a Filmography

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting overview/analysis of an Indian film-career (though familiarity with Indian cinema, 1950-1990s, certainly helps)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu . 14/4/2006 Suresh Kohli
India Today . 3/4/2006 Kaveree Bamzai
The Telegraph . 17/3/2006 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jerry Pinto has done a great job in recreating the Helen-mystique through a racy narrative, and by seeking to encapsulate "several myths lying around, myths that slowly began to become the stuff of legend" without having met or known the great seductress of Hindi cinema." - Suresh Kohli, The Hindu

  • "His appreciation of Helen's work turns out to be an enormous forensic exercise, involving the tracking down of at least 450 of her self-proclaimed 1,000-odd movies, of which some are obscure, while others are well-known. His reading of her performances is as entertaining as it is indicative of a considerable depth of knowledge, which takes the reader from a rumination on the significance of hotels in Hindi cinema to the mostly ridiculous depiction of Christians." - Kaveree Bamzai, India Today

  • "(A) delightful, intelligent and effortlessly well-researched book (.....) Pinto's book is an astute, but entertaining, essay about evolving Indian attitudes to sex, dance, song, women and pleasure. But it is also a warmly personal response to a woman's 'laughing invitation to naughtiness', written by someone who has never managed to meet her, but captures in nuanced but unpretentious prose (no Film Studies twaddle), 'the sheer transcendence of Helen's personality'" - The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb is not a personal biography of the iconic Indian film star Helen (born Helen Richardson), famed for her dancing (as song-and-dance numbers have always been a staple of almost all Indian films). Author Jerry Pinto admits that, despite many efforts, he was unable to meet Helen or to ask her any questions (he: "never got past the household help"); she also did not leave much of a trail in the fan-magazines or popular press over the decades, so there's very little personal detail in this book. Instead, Pinto offers a detailed look at her career in/on film, positioning her and the roles she filled within Indian cinema over the several decades of her unusually long career.
       Pinto sees Helen as an extraordinary figure in Indian film, an outsider who filled many roles (often variations of 'the Other', as needed) and who, while never a super-star (as in: the reason to go see a particular film) enjoyed great popularity. As he suggests:

Her roles were generally incidental, sometimes irrelevant, often divertissements. Despite this, the same industry began to turn her into an icon.
       (Even the famed Merchant-Ivory team made a film documenting her fascinating career, Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973) -- which Pinto has some good fun criticizing.)
       Helen appeared in an extraordinary number of films -- a thousand or so, she says, and Pinto tracked down around five hundred of them -- in a career that lasted unusually long, as she made the necessary transitions that came with age (and remained a fit and excellent dancer). Pinto notes:
At the height of her career, you couldn't see a film without seeing those famous legs.
       Pushed into film while still a teenager by her mother, Helen's dancing talents, and her 'otherness' helped establish her fairly quickly in the early 1950s. Her father was a Frenchman, her mother half-Spanish, half-Burmese, and so Helen could easily play the exotic 'Other' -- Anglo-Indian or entirely Western -- and Pinto does an excellent job of describing how the 'Other' has figured and been portrayed in Indian cinema over the decades, using Helen's many roles as examples. (The rare foray into blackface fortunately did not catch on .....)
       Focusing on the films and Helen's roles in them, Pinto offers an impressive history of much recent Indian cinema -- not via its landmarks (though these get some mention to), but rather in following the general trends, shifts, and changes over the years, of what was permissible, what was looked for. In a sense, Helen was a fringe-player -- rarely the (traditional Indian) heroine or romantic lead, but rather a challenge, tease, or seductress that might threaten traditional expectations or demands (but, of course, ultimately never truly upended them).
       Pinto goes over a great deal of film-material here; much will be familiar to Indian readers but likely prove bewildering to those not steeped in Hindi cinema. Many of these films can even be found on YouTube now; nevertheless, this is clearly a book more rewarding for those who come to it better-informed about the material. Even so, Pinto's discussion and insights are of interest even to those entirely unfamiliar with the films that are mentioned, as he focuses not only on specifics but also makes much broader arguments about various aspects of Indian cinema and society, using Helen as case-study.
       An interesting look at Indian cinema, culture, and society via this unusual figure, Helen is an engaging and quite enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 June 2014

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Helen: Reviews: Helen: Jerry Pinto: Other books by Jerry Pinto under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author and journalist Jerry Pinto was born in 1966.

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