Queen of the Nautch Girls
Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls, a 30-minute documentary film that looks at an aspect of Indian culture from a rather whimsical angle, has always been a popular Merchant Ivory film. The idea for the documentary came from Anthony Korner, an associate of Merchant Ivory's in the period, and now the publisher of Art Forum. It was directed and narrated by him, but the scenario was devised by Ivory. The subject of the film, which cost a modest $17,000 to make, is the most popular dancer in Bombay musical films -- so much so that since 1957 she had appeared in five hundred of them. In part the movie is a montage of scenes from her pictures and of the opening sequence in Bombay Talkie in which Helen dances with Shashi Kapoor on the keys of a giant red typewriter. Indian musical films that provided the background of Bombay Talkie now come to life before the bemused viewer. Stepping neatly around the puritanic codes governing Indian films that forbid direct sexual contact (even kissing), the musicals project sexuality fervently through innuendo -- in teasing situations and the sensuality of Helen's dancing. Extravagantly romantic fantasies are the stuff of this popular art form, of which Helen is clearly "queen."