London: There is a quiet intensity and a special look in her eyes. Though some feckless, floppy-haired philanderer might say she is a treacherous petite cat. Ah, that could be the bleak sigh of nagging despair in a green heart. Helen Raw has soulful eyes and a tender heart, and she is an actress, producer and a director, too. I was expecting her to be like I had imagined the countenance and contour of her heart and mind ahead of running into our maiden rendezvous. There were not many elements of surprise. Nonetheless, she throws many surprises in a conversation tossing from arts and aesthetics of British drama and Hollywood oaks to ‘good, bad wheeze love in a warm climate movies of Bollywood.’
It was 12 February, on a wet and windy afternoon in London. When Helen announced her London visit from Edingburgh, her hometown, I was prepared to go out and meet her with grim and bold determination. For a curvy, not sombre, but giggling blonde-haired vivacious actress, Helen was brimming with laughter pregnant with mirth and joy at All Bar One, a pub on the fringe of Leicester square, just north of the famous Odeon cinema. Helen was shooting down status messages on her mobile as her black leather bag cushions her. Giving her hilarious company were two jovial ladies from Holland. They were the accidental, anarchist company Helen had run into at All Bar One. It was Saturday evening, quite a good dose of nip in the London evening breeze. The chill could be drowned into warm fizz of vodka and beer as Helen gives me warm embrace in a very informal reception as I notice rich, poised baritone in her fast, Scottish accent. ‘Welcome to my life,’ quips Helen, as I discover over the four hour long evening at the pub, that is her favourite stock phrase. Along with ‘any need?’
Edinburgh is hailed for its enlightening ambience, cultural jamboree and arts and architecture as ‘Athens of the North.’ Less than five million people live here, and equal amount of visitor throng its cobbled streets during renowned Edinburgh Festival in August, an annual ritual, which also hosts Edinburgh Fringe, the world largest performing arts festival. Helen is a household name in the city of museums and libraries, celebrations and music, theatre and film carnivals where her besotted admirers look up to her divine inspiration. My mind was pregnant with fragrant memories of everything Edinburgh is known for, right from castle rock, fort, port, Burns Night, Fire Night, Book festival to military tatoo and street party. I was deeply aware that Helen belonged to the capital of Scotland, the city which has more women than men in its boundary living together in peace and joy. Gender balance plagues the urban pockets like New Delhi and Chandigarh. It is a reason for sorrow in Indian sub-continent whereas Edinburgh is enabling its women residents to steal a march over their men.
Not less delightful was the sense of literary affinity with the city of Edinburgh, which is the first UNESCO city of Literature. J.K.Rowling, the lady behind the magic of Harry Potter novels, lives in the city, which also boasts of some influential literary giants of past century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Boswell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Irvine Welsh, Alexander Smith, Sir Walter Scott and last but not the least, for those high on economic growth theory in third world, famed political economist Adam Smith was also a resident of Edinburgh. Graham Bell, pioneer of modern age loveliest invention, telephone, was also born and educated in Edinburgh, so was Charles Darwin and Maxwell.
Leicester Square is a heart-throbbing hole of the West End entertainment district to the west of central London. No sooner did you emerge out of the tube station and take a quick left turn to the street running down Empire, Odeon and VIU theatre, the eyes of the portrait artists and bustling crowd of Saturday party-poopers are on you. It is a delightful chance upon the crowd of portrait artists. All are hard at work, drawing the manners and gestures of all kind of faces, white, yellow and black, saddled in the wooden chair. Saturday and Friday nights are most cherished and awaited nights across London and elsewhere. Funsters or pranksters, red-haired to blonde beauties all sizzle down the street’s corner pub to chill out the heavy dose of five-day-week affair with work and weather.
When you are in Leicester Square, you are not much farther from Piccadilly Circus, where BAFTA Headquarters is based and Soho, the popular hotspot red light area of London and seat of erotic entertainment. Pubs, nightclubs, strip clubs, bars, sex shops and restaurants, salons and private pleasure retreats stares into your eyes, blinding with myriad shots of rainbow colours. Soho pubs could be infested with intellectuals, writers, artists who could lose sobriety in company of prostitutes and playmates. Streets across one square mile area of Soho are stuff of folklores and legends. It is no surprise to learn Karl Marx lived at Dean Street for five years between 1851-1856. Mozart lived for a few years of his childhood in the Frith street where Prince Edward theatre stands today. It was only the Frith street where John Logie Baird, inventor of television, demonstrated his first television. The laboratory today now has Bar Italia in its place.
Unlike seedy sex streets of G.B.Road in Delhi, Sonagacchi in Calcutta and Hira Mandi in Lahore, Soho is a fashionable hot spots. Sex workers operate in studio flats and salons which can masquerade under curious signposts like ‘The French Lessons’ and is there a bit missing here?
Helen was in London to offer some powerful pep-talk to a crowd of a few hundreds aspiring actors. The Actor Expo was the cause celebre for her London visit. Helen’s love affair with singing and acting began at tender age of eight. She trained in acting in city of Hollywood, Los Angeles before she embarked on a stirring singing career on cruise ships. She loves singing like a soprano and her voice is silken when it has to be and husky when she prefers to be. Her flourish continued during her frequent television appearances in shows like High Road and Taggart. Theatre remains her tallest temptation. The stage set her heart on fire and turned her into more creative impresario. That she is a show-woman of her trade is implicit in her smart talks. Helen talks the talk and walks the walk, when she talks about her much coveted membership of Equity or whether she dwells on arts and crafts of short-film making or for that matter performing in a drama as avant garde as The Vagina Monologues. She is an actor, director, creative head of her shows, eloquent speaker and a discerning eye and mind in spotting a bright talent. Edinburgh culture cafes and salons take a bow before her. Her innovative methods to put Scotland on continental map is spilling over into other territories, as height of her creative character and depth of her commitment to acting and direction brings more connoisseurs of arts to her flagship company, The Raw Talent Company. Helen is busy short-listing short scripts for producing some remarkable plays. She is also in charge of casting for a series of over a dozen short films in Edinburgh.
Helen is presently performing in and co-directing the much controversial yet celebrated play, The Vagina Monologues. When Eve Ensler wrote the play and staged at Here Arts Centre in New York in 1996, she would not have imagined the outstanding pouring of global interest and condemnation. Helen loves rebellious tones in creativity. Her plumping for the production was rightly inspired by the strong message The Vagina Monologues delivers against anti-women violence, especially sexual violence. She just loves to push the boulder up the hill like Sisyphus knowing that the boulder will fall down again but pushing it anyway and forever. The cast of actors in Edinburgh for the play are learning the sticking lessons in delivering the monologues. Like Ensler, Helen is also deeply affected by sexual violence and feels outraged how men can abuse the modesty and chastity of a vulnerable girl by sheer force of their physical strength. She says, ‘A woman is more empowered when her sexuality is respected. The Ensler’s play is a powerful statement against deflowering and the choice of ‘vagina’ as a metaphor to underscore emotions of sex, love, rape, menstruation, mutilation, masturbation, birth and orgasm is simply inspiring.’ There are twelve monologues in the dramatic play. My Angry Vagina is a telling commentary on the bestiality, cruelty and furious assault against vagina. In My Vagina Was My Village, the audience is transported into rape camps of Bosnian women, a tale of enormous horror and humiliation to pride of any woman in the world. The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could is a throwback to unnerving sexual experiences in the childhood of a woman. The horror could be unspeakable for many in the fair sex. Reclaiming Cunt, The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy, Because He Liked to Look At It and I was There In The Room are equally formidable, scary, shocking and frightening monologues for a weak heart and conservative minds. Little wonder, it has not been allowed to be staged in several countries, especially Muslim societies.
I had an opportunity to watch the skits in New Delhi a few years ago. One of my friends in media based in Lucknow was telling me the play was not allowed to be staged there by Islamic and Hindu radicals.
Helen shot into the spotlight across United Kingdom for her feisty decision to celebrate her divorce after pulling the curtain on her 12-month-old matrimony. The bees of bliss might have stung her in racking fashion, but the alliance was far from unfrightening. It was a bold and beautiful move by Helen to celebrate her divorce, though it might sound weird to millions of women across the globe who slip into abyss of humiliation and disgruntlement. Helen was uncluttered in her radical idea of her celebration of separation. ‘I had more fun at my divorce party than I did at my wedding. I didn’t spend a lot of money either, I just wanted to make a statement.’
Marriage is not the glittering sunlight of Life’s July and divorce shouldn’t be treated as standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November. This is Helen Raw’s message to everyone.
When I turned up to hear her at the Actors Expo at Campden Centre, just across the road from King’s Cross tube station, I found hundreds of wannabe actors hooked to her pep talk. Aspiring boys and girls with dreamy eyes encircled Helen at end of the lecture. Questions were flying at her – from how to deal with a casting director to making showreels, meeting the right critera for working in Hollywood studios to how to look believable in any roles. Helen was prompt and persuasive in shooting wisecracking arrows at one and all. She recounts an interesting tale of one of her actor friends who was working free for a production company. Whilst in the middle of his shooting schedule with the free-acting job, he received a call from the BBC who were impressed with his auditioning skills and had decided to cast him and pay as well. Helen says, ‘My student was caught in a web of confusion. For a moment, he was tempted to latch onto the paid offer of the BBC. That would have meant his commitment wavered with the running production just for the payment. I advised him not to fail his commitment for fee. When he returned to the BBC saying he is committed to a running production, the BBC was impressed with his reply. They advanced the date of shooting only to make him easy. This is important for a struggling actor. Commitment, whether free job or paid job, should top the agenda.’
Helen is joined by Forbes KB, an actor in the British film industry, renowned for portraying skinhead characters in several action thrillers. Forbes, Helen and I move out of the Campden Centre for a conversation over beer and Vodka at The Betjamin Arms, St Pancras tube station. Forbes is growing his hair to play a character, not a skinhead, in an MGM studio production. He has starred with Helen in an upcoming flick, Interrogating Vivian, in which Helen plays a detective. Bollywood dots the discussion about cinema. When I ask whether they can recognize the superstar marquee names of Indian cinema, Helen breaks into giggle. She says, ‘I am at my wit’s end when I see actor and actress suddenly breaking into a song and dance gig around trees and streets while a moment ago they were engrossed in a conversation. I don’t recognize bigtime Bollywood actors by name, but indeed I can relate to their on-screen appearance.’ There should be a thick line between Hitchcock’s cinema and concert of The Rolling Stones. Bollywood blurs the barrier between actors and singers, and so other genres in making a cinema.
Forbes knows about Shilpa Shetty after starlet’s controversial appearance and unexpected triumph in the British Celebrity Big Brother House show. However, he also finds naming of Bollywood superstars akin to climbing the hill of difficulty. Nonetheless, the massive market size of Bollywood fills them with thrilling ideas and makes them wonder about the casketing treasures of Bollywood czars. Forbes however believes Bollywood has not successfully marketed its films to local British market. It’s circle of influence is restricted to immigrants from India, Paksitan and Bangladesh.
When I ask Helen about the phenomenon of ‘Casting Couch’, she says it is a ridiculous idea. That Bollywood is grappling with the passionate idea of ‘casting couch’ makes Helen wonder what stories of romance and sensibility could lay hidden in the mind of not-so-methodical casting director. A casting director is a popular character behind the making of a good cinema, Helen was telling the audience of young actors. ‘You should be polite and courteous toward your casting director. However, when he misbehaves, you should not waste a moment verbally punching him in the face’. This is Helen Raw for you. There is hardly anything raw about her.