Welcome to The 70s Blog Mela in BollyLand! For seven technicolor days, your favorite Bollybloggers turn their back on The Golden Made- in-Bengal Age of Hindi Cinema and take time off from cribbing about modern cinema to focus on the era that taught us the true meaning of paisa vasool. Click on the link above or click here to catch up with all the fantastic posts you might have missed.
Vamp Up the Volume
One of the enduring legacies of 70s cinema is what it did to the treasured tradition of the vamp in Bollywood. As the seductive dancing of the Bad Woman got more and more frenzied, the music got faster and the costumes progressively risque – until the more adventurous heroines began to wonder why they weren’t getting in on any of that fun action. By the time the 70s drew to a close, the iconic age of Helen, Aruna Irani, Bindu, Padma Khanna and Laxmi Chhaya was all but over and we were down to Simple Kapadia and Kalpana Iyer as the likes of Zeenat Aman and Rekha among others began to cut in.
Originally this post was going to be another listicle, but once I got started, there were just so many great songs that I wanted to include that it got progressively harder and harder to choose just ten. I could’ve filled most of the spots from 1971 alone. After all, the 70s were also an amazing decade for music in the Hindi film industry. Besides, I was bored with all the listicles.
Instead, as I trawled Youtube for videos, I was struck by how the Bollywood vamp had stories to tell that were often more compelling than that of the heroine’s.
Padma Khanna’s most famous song, for example, from Johnny Mera Naam might have been titillating but its context was truly sad: she was dancing for the life of her lover and herself. It does not end well.
The trope of vamps as girls who will do anything for the sake of their men is one that comes up again and again. Helen’s cat-eyed turn in Don comes to mind, in which Kamini not only goes to bed with her fiance’s killer but puts on one hell of a show in order to delay him long enough for the police to get there.
And then there was Laxmi Chhaya’s bravura performance in this song from Mera Gaon Mera Desh. Never has a Bollywood song begged harder for some fanfic. You know Dharmendra must truly love Asha Parekh if he’s giving up all that for her and her conical headgear. Dayum. (Get more Laxmi Chhaya goodness here.)
And then there is Bindu. When I was compiling my little listicle, I was sure how it was going to turn out: a huge list of Helen songs with a few others thrown in to break the monotony. Because Helen was the Queen. And yet, Bindu was the one I found really difficult to strike off my list.
The more videos I watched, the more it seemed to me that there were three broad tiers of vampdom to be seen:
The first one is occupied solely by Helen. She did the occasional seduction piece that involved one on one action in humdrum settings like the ones in Don and Mere Jeevan Saathi, but by and large her cabarets were works of art. The set pieces, the choreography, the costumes, the context – there is a very definite artistic vision about them. From all accounts she was very particular about her songs and was in a position to bargain with the producers of her films about the quality of her work. And it showed. Helen was very, very sexy but she wasn’t really selling sex – she was selling fantasy. Her most iconic performances are those in which she never steps off the stage or, if she does deign to mix with the hoi polloi, she does it as a mark of great favor. Helen does not beg for anyone’s attention; she commands it.
The second tier belongs to young ladies like Padma Khanna and Laxmi Chhaya. There’s a whiff of good girl gone bad about their performances. If they were strippers, they’d be doing it for college tuition. Their performances are so wild and unrestrained, that it seems to form its own natural barrier against the thoroughly male milieu in which they take place. It’s one thing to admire a chick in hotpants having a jiggly meltdown in front of you, it’s quite another to get your hands on her. Although there’s a fair bit of contact between the performers and the audience, the dances themselves suggest birds struggling to take flight.
And then there is the third tier: the woman of experience. When she walks into a room, she knows what you’re thinking, likes it and knows exactly how she likes it. Aruna Irani is a good contender for it with her performances in movies like Caravan, Mili and Bobby to mention just a few but Bindu was the one who seems born to play her.
When I was little and didn’t really understand the finer points of human plumbing, I couldn’t understand how Bindu got to be a famous vamp in the same era as Helen. There was my darling Helen with her ballerina figure and her deranged Broadway musical outfits, dancing on her tippy toes with feathers in her hair like she’d just gotten off the time machine from the Belle Epoque and there was Bindu with her generous figure barely contained in slinky bits of nothing, slithering all over the place like an auntie who’d had a couple glasses too many. What was that all about?
Sex. When Bindu works a room, she maintains excellent eye contact with the man (or woman as the case might be in movies like Kati Patang and Shaque) she’s chosen and her objective seems to invade their personal space. She might be the object of the audience’s gaze but she retains control by choosing her target and turning him into the object of her desire. It is absolutely fascinating.
The third tier threat isn’t that this is a Bad Woman who does Bad Things like drink and dance in front of men wearing clothes that display too much flesh. The third tier threat is that of a succubus. Mess with this woman and she might just consume you. She isn’t just immoral, she’s dangerously immoral. She promises you the ultimate sexual thrill where you might just lose control. And be happy to do so.