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April 24, 2000

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In search of a vamp

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Firdaus Ali

It is an odd obsession. Even odder because we find it in a woman here: Eisha Marjara, a new-generation Indo-Canadian filmmaker from Montreal is fascinated by her childhood idol Helen.

Her fixation on the dancing queen of the yesteryear comes through well in her latest film, Desperately Seeking Helen , wherein she tries to rediscovers herself while documenting the life of the famous vamp.

Premiered on Canadian television recently, Desperately Seeking Helen won Eisha rave reviews. In an interview, she talks about cinema as a timeless medium, plans for the film's release in Bombay, her mother and sister whom she lost in the 1985 Air-India plane crash and her war with anorexia.

The engrossing, autobiographical film has Marjara pondering over her ethnic identity, pop culture, even her femininity.

If most film-buffs fell in love with Helen for her slim, petite figure and graceful dances -- Marjara was fascinated with the dancing diva for a whole bunch of different reasons.

"Helen was a larger than life figure, the icon of Indian cinema which is the world's largest dream factory. More than a movie star, she was a glittering figure of desire and playfulness, the mistress of a thousand disguises, yet always herself," says the film-maker who has written, directed and enacted the lead role in the film.

Marjara fell in love with Helen as a child. In her search for the reclusive vamp, Marjara left the hills of Trois-Rivieres in Quebec to the bustle of Bombay. And the film she finally made won her rave reviews when it premiered on Canadian television recently.

A collage of family photos, home movies, film clips and footage of her journey through Bombay, the film is an impressionistic, humorous reminiscence of director Marjara's own story. In the film, Helen helps her deal with her unsettling youth, her anorexic problem and her relationship with her mother and sister who died in the 1985 Air-India bombing disaster.

Placing a forceful, personal narrative against a background of Hindi song and dance numbers, Desperately Seeking Helen is a moving account of self-discovery and a powerful reflection on the power of cinema.

Marjara revisits the Western culture of the '70's youth. The fantasies of a little girl star-struck by movies -- with idols ranging from Bollywood vamps to Hollywood tomboys -- are interwoven with images of her mother's life, an isolated housewife in a wintry Quebec town, job-hunting with a resume and an Indian accent.

Marjara thought of the film five years ago. "I lost my mother and my little sister in the 1985 Air-India disaster. The themes of my story were so compelling and universal -- loss, identity, belonging, mother-daughter relationships, movies -- that I felt like I had to make a movie about it. The idea for using Helen as a subject came about subconsciously.

"She was a provocative figure and her persona truly intrigued me. She was a Bollywood movie star who was playful, glamorous and of mixed race -- English and Indo-Burmese. After two years of research and script writing, I came upon the idea of really seeking her. Otherwise, I was going to fictionalize her in my film, or play her myself," says Marjara.

The making of Desperately Seeking Helen was far from a straightforward process. Helen was a metaphor, a persona, a fantasy, a character, a childhood dream; a woman of a thousand disguises yet always herself, a vamp. She was independent, playful, glamorous and a perfect mix of east and west. She was everything Marjara's mother wasn't. Her mother was a traditional Indian woman -- a housewife, a woman who struggled to be independent and to belong in a society that didn't accept her. Her life was split between two cultures, two families -- those of her parents in India and her own in Canada.

"In the film I say, She couldn't get her balance right, because she had one foot in Canada, and one foot in India." Then you have Helen, who appears perfect in her skin, wears a cabaret costume and sings in Hindi, an excellent dancer embodying a perfect mix of two cultures.

"Helen is the conduit through which I explore my story and that of my mother's. When the idea of going to Bombay and filming my search for her came about, I learnt more about Helen and Hindi cinema. It was then that I became aware of the fact that she was a vamp. That intrigued me a great deal. I returned with footage of interviews with other vamps -- Nadira, Padma Khanna, Navneet Nishan -- as well with directors and actors who were associated with Helen. The story really took shape in the editing room much later where I shaped the story,'' says Marjara.

Helen herself was not interested in being in the film, and Marjara respected that. Many know that Helen is a private person, and doesn't give interviews that easily.

"Also, I couldn't, at the time, explain my movie to her; it was far too complex for her to understand what I was going to do. I didn't even know what I was going to do. She thought I wanted to make an expose of her life. I think it freaked her out," confesses Marjara.

As a film-maker, Marjara was also aware of the tragedy of Helen on-screen, especially in the mid to late 70's, when the vamp was being phased out by a new line-up of stars like Zeenat Aman, and Parveen Babi. Helen wilted before the competition around this time.

"The tragedy I bring in the film is mostly about the life of the vamp who often gets killed for being the 'bad girl'," as well as the trauma of the actresses who have played vamps, like Padma Khanna who I show in the movie. They have struggled to break out of the stereotype of being the vamp. The death -- or murder -- of the vamp is an important plot point in the movie. The vamp is who I identify with, because she has fun, yet fun and freedom doesn't last forever, and comes with a dear price -- her demise. And as we know, the vamp was phased out in Hindi cinema, but she has returned in spurts here and there in the movies but not in the prolific way as in the days of Helen -- the queen of vamps!" says Marjara.

Why the "Desperate" in the title?

Because it plays into the melodrama in pop Hindi film, says Marjara, adding that it brings in a self-mocking element in her pursuit. The term also indicates, more seriously that it is her on-going, and unfulfilled need to be with her deceased mother, who's alive and well in memory and in home movies and with Helen, a fantastic figure existing on screen.

"The longing for both these women will never cease, and will forever remain unfulfilled -- and desperate," says Marjara in an emotion-choked voice. During her trip to Bombay, Marjara wasn't interested in repeating the stereotype people in the west had of poverty and squalor. She preferred to dwell on the Bollywood fantasy: the movies and pop culture.

"The gloss does get muted once I, the character on-screen, realizes that she is chasing a fantasy -- Helen. Bombay isn't Bombay at first, merely Bollywood."

It is later that she realizes and prises away reality from fantasy. The character gets into cabs, chases after this elusive character she believes to be Helen, etc.

"The city is this big movie playground where reality ends and fantasy begin, and the line between them is unclear. In the end, of course, she has a reality check, and comes back to herself and her mother's reality, which is the tragic plot-point of the story," says Marjara.

Speaking of Hindi cinema, she feels the presence of Indian pop cinema, its culture has been present in works amongst many South Asian artists in the West, and it is only when a white mainstream artist appropriates it that it gains the attention and recognition it deserves.

Marjara first drew attention at the 1990 Montreal Word Film Festival with her film, 24 Hours. Her second film, a ten minute experimental film called, The Incredible Shrinking Woman received an honorable mention at the 1994 Semana de Cine Experimental at Madrid.

That was about a woman who is shrinking in size and is afraid she might disappear. So, she goes to see a shrink, who tells her that there is nothing wrong with her. The movie is about "everyday life in an anorexic culture", she says.

Ahead lies another dramatic film, again dealing with fantasy and reality, which Marjara wants to explore further.

"That is as far as I can explain at the moment, but, yes, I do plan to make more films," she says.

Marjara plans to show the film at the documentary film festival that takes place in Bombay every second year.

"I also plan a solo screening in a theatre in Bombay. Helen always did it solo, didn't she? I'd like that a lot...."

Would that be stretching the limits of reality? Perhaps.

Next: Irresistible force

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