Helen has performed traditional-seeming dances like Kathak and folk; she has been a belly-dancer, a go-go girl, a Moulin Rouge-style chorus girl, a dancer from a Brazilian carnival and much more. In each film her outfit, make-up, hair and dancing style were different, with a strongly self-aware stylistic presentation. She wore giant feathers, tiaras or Chiquita Banana-style fruit headdress, lined her eyes with diamantes, painted her lips in excessively pastel shades. Her outfits were made of satin, gauze, fur, metal, studded with gems—layered flamenco skirts, diaphanous harem pants, shiny bell-bottoms.

Every appearance Helen made had a surprise element attached to it.

Jerry Pinto, in his book The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, has analyzed Helen as a figure symbolizing the sexualization of minority Christian women, as well as her bodily demeaning and association with the world of decadence and corruption. This is also symbolized by the club, in conjunction with the weak, inferior male Christian figure. While this packaging is undoubtedly an operational ready, the hallmark of Hindi cinema’s densely packed symbolic languages is that the dances offer parallel, coexisting readings. Hence, Helen also played out, in about a decade-long career, almost every kind of marginal body as well as the heady consumption of international pleasures in the very material quality of her presence. Helen was all things—the stage and the dance, in the body of the dancer. In each film she presented this idea with a different stylistic cast—elaborate and consistent. Sometimes she died in a film; sometimes she never appeared again, having played out her performance. But she returned in the next film, with a completely different aesthetic. To this extent, she functioned much in the way that pandals function during big religious festivals like Ganpati [10] [open endnotes in new window] in Western India and Durga Puja in the East—representing the tableaux of current events, pleasures and aesthetics, and locating the deity amidst these; casting and recasting the deity through contemporary happenings and sensations; remixing them into the repertoire of the Indian; and passing them on through bodily movement.

It is often said of Helen that her dancing was ‘sexy but not vulgar’, unlike that of her imitators, or rather successors, like Jayashree T., Padma Khanna and others. While this is debatable, it was nevertheless a widely held notion among middle-class urban viewers who freely admitted to their enjoyment of a Helen dance. I would argue that Helen helped create this feeling of sexy as pleasurable, not vulgar, through the elaborate construction of her dance persona—foregrounding skill, aesthetics, and the dance as construct. The performance became an inorganic thing, not something intrinsic to the body at some level, but something anyone could don or learn. In a sense, dance and its meanings became separated from the body through this constantly altering projection, thus also offering the idea of bodily mobility as opposed to a permanently determined, fallen body.

The Helen dance also created a comfort level with the idea of dance, and a more sexualized one at that, for pure pleasure. While it still had the prophylactic of an audience within the film that watched it, providing the real-life audience with an excuse to consume these pleasures, the arrival of the dancer in the midst of that audience allowed for a shooting style that sometimes eliminated the filmic audience and, through close-ups, brought her to the midst of the live audience, underlining their direct consumption of these pleasures, habituating them to this kind of body, generating a cinematic bodily contact otherwise forbidden, or at least unfamiliar, with a physical sexiness, a free female body.

Helen’s most prominent phase was in the era of the romantic film where urban middle-class men and women, not usually separated by social identity, often fell in love in a location away from home or through chance encounters on roads as groups of girls frolicking on bicycles met brash men in cars. The presence of Helen certainly managed some of the anxieties around this kind of romantic choice, which is, after all, also sexual choice. It offered a clean separation between the sexualized woman and the romantically eroticized but monogamous heroine figure. This is also why a Helen dance always took place in a confined space, like the club, and her social as well as emotional mobility was constrained in return for the bodily flamboyance and sexual freedom, she emanated.

Piya Tu Ab to Aaja - Caravan (1971). Helen singing in a nightclub, a special place away from daily life.
Helen's in box office hit Jewel Thief (1967). Helen's tantalizing dance moves.

In contrast, the heroine of the film was often to be found singing in anticipation of adulthood through love and desire, but in innocent pastoral settings. Her womanhood was awakened by the arrival of a man in a garden or on a simple mountain road, and romance was then carried out in manicured gardens, nature shaped by human hands. This often took place as another popular item of the Hindi film dance catalogue—the picnic song—where the hero arrived during a girls’ picnic and inserted himself into the group. Eventually the hero and heroine disported against a backdrop of her friends, recalling the lila [12] of Krishna and Radha in the forest, surrounded by gopis [13]. 

In a sense, then, anxieties around the ‘modern’ Indian woman dissipated out of the body of the heroine/respectable Indian woman and amalgamated around the dancing body of Helen—vamp, minority figure, sexual, international, unattached. In fact, when she did get attached, she usually met with death—separating the idea of sexual freedom from monogamy. On the one hand, this certainly laid out a dichotomy of sex which is only bodily, in the form of the vamp-dancer, and sex which is of the soul, a higher, noble kind, attached to love and carried out only after marriage, in the form of the heroine. The heroine’s erotic desire was responsive in relation to a man, rather than independent and active in relation to her own body, as with Helen.

On the other hand, by habituating audiences to such a physical presence, Helen set the stage for a new type of heroine to come in the 1970s—whose body was displayed for pleasure, in bikinis or dance performances that could be termed cabaret (this is always a sexual term in India). Several ghostly bodies of dance released themselves through Helen into the bodies of future heroines like Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, who went on to have pre-marital sex on screen (and very obviously in their personal lives, living with their paramours openly). The decline of Helen’s career and the rise of these heroines happened in a cross-fade—with Helen and Zeenat Aman meeting in the 1978 film Don (dir. Chandra Barot). Helen did the famous ‘yeh mera dil dance with Amitabh Bachchan, only to die at the end of it. But Zeenat Aman goes on living and in fact impersonates a dancer in the film symbolically living on as a figure, while the figure of Helen began to fade from films. Helen finally retired in 1983.

After the end of the Helen era, however, dance itself ceased to have a strong presence in Hindi films, and the staged dance, practically not at all. In part, women themselves struggled to find a strong space in film narratives, which cohered more and more around the male protagonist’s quests. It was not for a few years that dance once again rose to significance in the Hindi film. This time the genie of dance slipped out of the bottle and manifested in the body of a heroine figure—Madhuri Dixit. It is not that there had not been dancing stars before. Vyjayanthimala was one of these in the 1950s. But a ‘Vyjayanthimala dance’ was not part of the expected repertoire of the Hindi film, as it went on to become with Madhuri Dixit.

Madhuri Dixit was trained in Kathak and entered Hindi films in the 1980s, but did not quite make a mark until 1988. When she did, it was with a dance. Playing Mohini—the avatar taken by Vishnu to lure the asuras [14] (trans. demons) during the amrit manthan [15] (churning of the ocean), symbolic of the most alluring of women—she danced on stage to the song ‘Ek, do, teen’ (one, two, three). The song is watched by a group composed of solely working-class men, whom Mohini teases with raunchy steps offset by her mischievous, innocently sexy face.

This dance marks a turning point in the history of Hindi film dance for several reasons.

Madhuri Dixit in Khalnayak (1993) has a mischievious, girl-woman sexiness. Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan in the iconic song Didi Tera Dewar Deewana (1994).

For the first time it presented a clear heroine figure in a dance that is chiefly sexy, and presented sexiness with a robust, bodily series of steps. From this film on, a Madhuri Dixit film meant that there had to be a Madhuri Dixit dance item in the film—and that it would involve some kind of stylized aesthetic but highly pared down, built to showcase Madhuri Dixit’s special brand of Monroesque, mischievous, girl-woman sexiness along with her great skill. The songs were full of double meanings and suggestions, and winks and teasing steps: ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ (trans. What’s beneath your blouse?)  with its Rajasthani flavour, ‘Humko, aaj kal hai intezar’ (trans. Nowadays I’m always waiting)  with its Koli fisherwoman style, ‘Chane ke khet mein’ (trans. in the chickpea fields)  and ‘Didi tera dewar deewana’ (Sister, your brother-in-law is crazy) with their Uttar Pradesh folk roots—all of them featured much heaving of breasts, sticking out of bottoms and sinuous hip movements.

It is not, again, as if these elements had not existed earlier in Bollywood dance. But for the first time they were brought together in one body as a definable genre—what we now call Bollywood dance, where the hips were so important. In the presence of a Madhuri item, its aesthetic styling, its presentation on a stage or in a party setting, you could sense also the ghost of Helen Richardson inhabiting the frame of Madhuri Dixit.

But this was not the only ghostly body present in the dance. There was another, all too real, all too significant body—that of Saroj Khan. Saroj Khan was born Nirmala, in a poor, Partition-era family. She began working in films at the age of 3 to support her family, doing bit roles and moving on to parts as a chorus dancer. She can be spotted in a boyish outfit in one of the group dances, ironically, of Howrah Bridge (1958, dir. Shakti Samanta), Helen’s breakout film. She later shifted to choreography. Saroj Khan is credited with having brought Indian bhava (trans. emotiveness), and aspects of Kathak and Indian folk back into the dance repertoire, and investing these with a contemporary, open sexiness never before seen in dances by heroines. The sexuality of her dances was very bodily, very frank, and not dependent on a hero’s touch alone.

But she also has the historic credit for being the person because of whom the popular Filmfare award for choreography was instated. And when she went up to receive this award on stage, dancing the steps she had composed for Madhuri Dixit for ‘Ek do teen’  (trans. one two three), she became the first choreographer to be present before the audience’s eyes, asserting that the body of the dancing heroine contained also the body of the choreographer. In doing this she gathered the ghosts of many forgotten worlds of dance—which had found their way into the darkened corners of Bollywood studios as dance teachers, musicians and extras—into her being, bringing these worlds to a professional place again.

Innumerable photographs exist of Saroj Khan and Madhuri Dixit together, both striking identical poses, making explicit that what dances on screen is the body of Madhuri Dixit with the ghostly body of Saroj Khan, erstwhile chorus girl, film extra/junior artist, the most marginal of figures of the screen in a Hindi film. In one sense this breaks apart the idea of Helen into two—the dancer and the dance, both embodied, separately and simultaneously. It also communicates the idea of Bollywood dance as a teachable object, breaking through the screen to reveal what went into creating those Bollywood affects, the idea that Bollywood dreams held a graspable reality which could make the dreams graspable too.

What consolidated this idea was Saroj Khan’s other notable contribution to the repertoire of Hindi film dance—the signature step. Saroj Khan’s choreography through the 1990s was marked by a highly identifiable signature step which she repeated along with the refrain of the song, something she developed in her work with Madhuri Dixit. From Helen to Saroj Khan, the Bollywood dance became a cinematic object. With these discrete steps, Saroj Khan offered a way for the ghosts of dancing filmi bodies to enter the bodies of real people not just in symbolic ways.

In her book Wanted: Cultured Ladies Only, Neepa Mazumdar interviews Girish Karnad about Fearless Nadia, the stunt star of the 1930s. He talks of how half the pleasure of watching Nadia’s films lay in being able to imitate the fights and stunts afterwards. In this way cinema culture became physical culture. In this way a kind of bodily contact happened between cinema figure and audience, which altered the bodily experience of the viewer when outside the cinema hall. The cinema hall was in that sense a transgressive physical experience where one took in diverse bodies into one’s own and remixed them with one’s own physical language, reframing respectable bodies and mobility within and via the body. So it was that Saroj Khan’s choreography and its signature step became easily imitatable.

Since they were embodied in the figure of the heroine and not the vamp, performing these dances, for middle-class and all other classes of viewers, offered what I would call a respectable ambiguity. Significantly, the male star Saroj Khan also worked with considerably was Govinda, who brought in a formalized street dancing aspect and persona to the Hindi film screen.

These trends in Hindi film dance swiftly found themselves established as the standard of choreography on the one hand, but even more swiftly they spilled off the screen into real life. The performance of item dances at weddings, the growth of a Bollywood dance class industry for those who wanted to sample the pleasures of formalized dance without the intensity of classical art, grew from the signature step—but also, one might also venture to say, from the joining of body and soul, sex and spirit that the Saroj Khan–Madhuri Dixit pairing brought to us.

Eventually, this ghostly movement of bodies from one to the other in a kind of positive, non-scary version of The Shining translated into a literal mobility of bodies. India’s earliest dance competition show on television was ‘Boogie Woogie’, an open competition that anyone could try to enter, which showcased a nascent dance craze developing in India. It was followed by ‘Nach Baliye' [16] in 2005, where real-life couples competed through choreographed dance; and ‘Jhalak Dikhlaja' in 2006, based on the BBC show ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, which paired a choreographer with a celebrity. These shows created an appetite for dance contests, but also a literacy with dance styles and cinema choreography’s use of costume, lighting and dance for viewers.

With this base, it was the 2009 show ‘Dance India Dance’ that significantly altered the world of Bollywood dance, and brought in that literal bodily mobility. ‘Dance India Dance’ was an open competition where talent was found in different cities—quite like ‘Indian Idol’ did for singers. Anyone who could dance could compete—and they did. The judges on the show were Bollywood choreographers, and they worked with the dancers to refine their styles. ‘Dance India Dance’ brought to prominence the explosion of street dance that had been taking place among working-class urban populations as well as the alumni of Bollywood dance academies. It also brought forward the dance troupe—groups of people, often of poorer backgrounds, who had honed their performances in community spaces around religious festivals like Ganpati, side by side with classically trained dancers.

In a way, every dance element that had made up Hindi film dance was available on screen as a deconstructed Bollywood dance, reconstructed before our eyes. It also made the careers of some troupes and some individual dancers. Famous among these is Raghav Juyal or Cockroaxz, who perfected a personal fusion style involving slow motion walking steps which was described as an amalgamation of being ‘powerful like a crocodile and creepy like a cockroach’. Cockroaxz won season 3 of ‘Dance India Dance’. He made his film debut with a small, unsuccessful film, Sonali Cable (trans. Sonali the cablewoman, Charudutt Acharya, 2014), but he remains a big youth icon for his story of success.

In 2013, Remo D’Souza, Bollywood choreographer and judge on the show ‘Dance India Dance’, made his first feature film. Titled ABCD (Anybody Can Dance), the film replayed the story of ‘Dance India Dance’-style shows—it followed the shaky fortunes, reversals and eventual victory of a troupe of street dancers from a Mumbai slum, headed by their maverick teacher, Prabhudeva. Many of the dancers from ‘Dance India Dance’ featured in this film.

Produced by a prestigious studio, UTV–Disney, the film was a giant hit. More importantly, it was the first time in perhaps forty years that such a diversity of dancing bodies was featured on the A-list Indian screen—fat, thin, dark-skinned, Muslim, low-caste, male, female and, especially, working class—on par in a troupe. The film had no known faces among the dancers, which made it all the more a powerful story of success. It also had no discernible hero and heroine figures—though, without a doubt, men played a more prominent part in the narrative.

As screen travelled into life and life travelled back onto screen, a literal movement of bodies that do not make up the mainstream idea of the uber-body— heterosexual, upper caste and class, gym-perfect to international standards—was made possible through dance. This literal movement can also be found in a completely different space: that of a troupe of transgender performers called The Dancing Queens whose public performances are slowly gaining general popularity outside LGBTQI spaces. Abhina, the founder of the troupe, spoke movingly at a performance in Mumbai in 2016, about her transition from male to female:

‘Bollywood dance gave me confidence in my body. To dance before other people and to be appreciated for something of my body made a very big difference to me.’

In a poignant moment of joining, she performed on the same stage with her mother, who had supported her transition and who had also been, before, a traditional Lavni (a courtesanal folk form of Maharashtra) dancer. On stage, then, were the many physical, social, cultural and emotional movements of bodies held by Bollywood dance.

The story of the Bollywood staged dance is a story of remixed bodies, each transforming the other, infecting each other with the body of dance. They offer us also a way to look at the history of Bollywood, not only as a history of the normative national but of marginalized pleasure, pushing its way back to centerstage, bringing with it other marginalized selves. Perhaps it also offers us a way to reconceptualize narratives of the national.

This is not to convey a single-toned account of under-class triumph. Bollywood’s constant churn establishes and destabilizes simultaneously, as I have noted earlier in this essay.

The coda of the story is bittersweet: in 2015, the sequel to ABCD came out, as ABCD2. It no longer starred unknown dance performers and their varied, unprocessed bodies. Instead, the central roles had a hero and heroine, played respectively by Varun Dhawan and Shraddha Kapoor, children of film families, their bodies gym-reconstituted and elite. In these bodies, they subsumed the several bodies that had come before, of working-class dancers and their diverse bodily narratives, into a modern, consumer-friendly processed body and gendered narrative.

It is another matter that Cockroaxz  also played a significant, though supporting role in the film. We will have to wait and see if some meaning is made of that, which changes the center of the stage.