Up until the 1920s, Bollywood could not find female actors. Acting was not considered worthy of ‘good’ women. So men were shaving off or hiding their moustaches, and wearing saris to play women’s roles. Eventually, the women came. But they were not Hindus or Muslims. They were Jews.
An Australian academic and documentary filmmaker, Danny Ben-Moshe, travels back in time to document this little-known aspect of the Hindi film industry in his documentary Shalom Bollywood. Translated from Hebrew, it means ‘Hello Bollywood’.
Ben-Moshe says, “For Hindu and Muslim women of that time, acting in films was not a respectable profession. But Jewish families living in India, both the Bene Israelis and Baghdadi Jews, were comparatively more liberal. And their women, with their lighter skin and western looks, scorched the screen.”
So in came Susan Soloman, or as she was popularly known, Firoza Begum, Sulochana (Ruby Meyers), Patience Cooper, the first Miss India Pramila (Esther Abrahams), Rose Ezra, and later, Nadira (Florence Ezekiel). But the Jewish contribution to Bollywood did not end with its women. The script and songs for India’s first talkie Alam Ara (1931) was written by a Jew, Joseph Penkar David; the famous choreographer David Herman, whom even Raj Kapoor wanted to work with, was a Jew; Kapoor’s biographer and famous film historian Bunny Reuben was also a Jew; and so was David Abraham Cheulkar, a well-known actor who starred in over 100 films such as Boot Polish (1954) and Golmaal (1971).
The wildcat of Bombay
In the early days, India’s celluloid queen was a woman called Sulochana. With a salary of over Rs5,000 per month, she earned more than the governor of Bombay. This even stirred a debate in the parliament once. She was also among the few who owned a Chevrolet 1935. “She was born in 1907 as Ruby Myers and worked as a telephone operator, before being discovered,” says Moshe. She was awarded the 1973 Dada Saheb Phalke Award and some of her popular films included Typist Girl (1926), Balidaan (1927), and Wildcat Of Bombay (1927), in which she essayed eight roles, including that of a gardener, a Hyderabadi gentleman, a street urchin, and a European blonde.
India’s first Miss India
However, by the 1940s, Sulochana’s star was beginning to fade. And that of another actress was on the rise. Her name was Esther Victoria Abraham, more popularly known as Pramila. She became India’s first Miss India (1947), a feat made even more unique when her daughter Naqi Jahan became a Miss India pageant winner in 1967. She starred in hugely successful movies such as Bhikaran and Mother India (not to be mistaken with Mehboob Khan’s film of the same name). The latter ran for an incredible 82 weeks.
Known for her fiercely independent spirit, Pramila left her home in Calcutta at the age of 17 and traveled to Bombay. She got a job as an entertainer in a Parsi travelling theatre company. Whenever the reel in the projector had to be changed, for those 15 minutes, she was required to dance and perform to keep the audiences quiet. She went on to star in about 30 films as a vamp and a fearless stunt star.
Later, she had to wage a battle to retain her house in Shivaji Park. When her husband left for Pakistan, the family was in debt. “She warded off auctions on two occasions and an injunction on another,” Ali says. Today the house stands proudly with the name Pramila Nivas on its gate.
The man whose songs started it all
On March 14, 1931, Alam Ara (Light of the World), India’s first talkie was released. It was directed by Ardeshir Irani but its screenplay and songs were written by Joseph Penkar David, a Bene-Israeli Jew. Joanna Ezekiel, a creative writing tutor, is his great-granddaughter and lives in York, England. “My father moved to England in 1964. He remembers my great-grandfather as a gentle, eccentric man. In the late 1930s, my father lived opposite the Wadia Movietone studios for a time. He would watch my great-grandfather enter the buildings every weekday at 8am wearing his fur hat, however hot the weather.”
‘I won’t seduce you’
The story goes that Nadira, born Florence Ezekeil, had once told a nervous film journalist who had come to interview her, “Don’t sit on the edge of the bed, you will fall off. Come closer and sit comfortably. I won’t seduce you.”
She, of the famous arched eyebrows and vamp roles, was perhaps Bollywood’s most well-known Jew. In Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420, she was Maya, a woman seen with cigarette in one hand and a glass in another, trying to lead the hero astray from his real love, Vidya, played by Nargis. “She was way ahead of her time,” remembers actor Deepti Naval, Nadira’s longtime friend. “In those days heroines were portrayed as shy and demure. But here was someone so forthright, strong and fiery.”
Ben-Moshe will be visiting India later this year to complete his shooting. He hopes to have the film ready by 2012. “It is so strange. In Hollywood, Jews worked behind the camera, as producers (Metro, Goldwyn), often hiding their heritage. But in India, the Jews have been just the opposite. They have been confident and often facing the camera,” he says.