Three separate threads make up this film -- the story of Marjara's mother, who moved reluctantly with her husband to Canada; Marjara's own childhood and fascination with Hindi movie vamps; and her teenage anorexia and search for identity. These threads are determinedly intertwined through the film, but rather than forming a smooth braid, they are uneven and mismatched.
Helen, the actress of the title, has a fascinating history of her own. She is half Burmese and half English, and moved with her mother and sibling to India as a child. She started acting to contribute to the family income, learned to dance, and made her first breakthrough in Howrah Bridge in 1958, dancing to Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo. She went on to two decades of film roles, but was always cast as a Westernized vamp, the counterpoint to the wholesome Indian heroine.
There's no end of issues to be explored in Helen's life, but this film only briefly touches on them. Instead, we see Helen almost entirely through the perspective of the filmmaker: Eisha Marjara talking to a taxi driver about Helen, Eisha Marjara making phone calls to Helen's agent, Eisha Marjara watching Helen's films as a child. There are occasional documentary-like sequences such as an interview with Padma Khanna, one of the actresses who inherited Helen's mantle, but they are sideshows to the main autobiographical story of Marjara.
Marjara's mother's story is touching and common; an immigrant in an unfamiliar land who struggled to gain some independence and a life that involved more than housekeeping. She taught in a high school for a while, but schools were not keen on hiring an Indian woman to teach English. A minor car accident scared her off driving, leaving her housebound and ending her brief emancipation. She is on her way to India with Eisha's sister in 1985 when their Air India plane is blown up over the Irish coast in the worst case of airplane terrorism in history. This disaster is closely and painfully connected to Eisha's anorexia.
It's the Helen thread that appears contrived, because the connection to the autobiographical stories is not convincing. Marjara repeatedly and explicitly connects the three stories, but her fascination with Helen appears irrelevant to the more serious issues in the film. It is not helped by the voice-over, which is intrusive and overly melodramatic:
"Her name was Helen. And Mine was (...pause...) Not."
In the last few minutes of the film, the connection between the anorexia and Marjara's mother's death becomes shockingly clear, and one feels for Marjara but still wishes the film had been less confused.
-- Susan Chacko
Film description: To the Indian film mecca of Bollywood and back, Marjara seeks out her childhood film idol, Helen. From Amritsar to Trois Rivieres, Desperately Seeking Helen enters a world of fantasy and unimaginable realities, as Marjara navigates cultures and memory to find a sense of self. Who is Helen? A diva of Indian cinema, the world's biggest dream factory. She has performed in more than 700 films. More than a movie star, she is a glittering figure of desire and playfulness, the mistress of a thousand disguises, yet always herself. Juxtaposing forceful personal narrative with Hindi song and dance numbers, Desperately Seeking Helen is a compelling account of self-discovery and a moving reflection on the power of movies.