In the 1920s, Indian films had to feature men dressed as women. It was a time when performing was seen as an unseemly activity for women.
But there was one community that was free from the cultural restrictions that barred many Indian women from the silver screen – the Indian-Jews. From behind the camera to being in front of it, they’ve left an indelible mark on the history of Indian cinema. But you would be hard-pressed to point them out from the credits – as they often adopted Hindu, Muslim or Christian stage names to blend in with the industry.
India’s first female superstar was Ruby Myers A.K.A. Sulochana. She worked as a telephone operator when director Mohan Bhavnani of Kohinoor Films first discovered her. Despite his repeated pleas, she showed no interest in cinema – it being a less-enticing career option at the time. She agreed when he offered her a leading role, in Veer Bala (1925). Her third film, Wildcats of Bombay (1927) saw her take on eight roles – from policeman, to gardener to even that of a Hyderabadi gentleman! She later switched to the studio Imperial films.
She was not demure, as would be expected from a newcomer to a new medium. Her roles were often bold, depicting the ‘modern’ woman. But the times were changing, and women began to make their mark on the movies. In 1930, hers might have been the first kiss in Indian cinema – in the film Hamara Hindustan.
In 1931, the first talky ‘Alam Ara’ was released (written by the Jewish David Joseph Penkar) she was denied a role for not knowing Hindi. Less than a year later, she had mastered the language – demonstrating her skills in the talkie-remake of Madhuri (1932).
Throughout the 1920s, Sulochana was the biggest superstar of her time. She drew a salary of Rs. 5000 – which at the time, was more than that of the British Governor of Bombay (a much-repeated piece of trivia that further elevated the mythos of the film star). She started facing competition from other actresses in the 1930s, prompting her to start her own production house – RubiPics. It gave her a greater degree of independence than most actresses today.
In 1973, she was the fifth recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award by the Indian government. By then, she was far from the only Jew in Bollywood.
India’s first Miss India was Esther Victoria Abraham AKA Pramila, who won the title while pregnant, in 1947. She hailed from a Baghdadi Jewish family, and along with Sulochana, made a mark on the film industry. Part of the reason for choosing Jewish actresses was their fairer skin. But the roles they played had a part in identity and narrative building. As Jewish historian Kenneth X. Robbins writes:
It was an era that was trying to deal with the educated, independent woman who was considered ‘modern’ by placing her in opposition to a Bharat Nari they were trying to create.
Often called ‘vamps’, these roles were a trope of cinema that saw women play seductive, malicious characters meant to excite (rather than antagonize) the audience. Sulochana was the famous for these. As a reader’s comment in an issue of Film India (1942) read:
I am not going to miss her picture, because I am told that she sings some snappy tunes and vamps as she has never vamped before. And when Sulochana vamps it is a sight for the gods.
The other Jewish-Indian vamp was Pramila, as well as famous Jewish actress, Nadira (born Florence Ezekiel). Nadira also acted in India’s first colour film ‘Aan’ (1952).
Pramila, like Sulochana, also started her own production house – writing scripts, composing music and deciding her own fate.
It wasn’t just the silver screen that saw Jewish communities leave their mark. Ezra Mir, born Edwyn Myers, was one of the Indian government’s most prolific film-makers, responsible for producing over 700 films. He started as a short-film maker in New York before returning to India and joining Imperial Film Company in 1931.
It was in 1940 that he got his break with the Film Advisory Board – serving as its Chief Producer for six years, where he made over 170 films including war propaganda and packages for the Indian News Parade.
The “Voice of Satan” very rightly expresses the sharp practices of German broadcasts in Hindusthani and divulges the actual conditions of cruel coercion under which the unfortunate Indians in Germay are compelled to broadcast to their people a continuous tissue of lies with a gun between the ribs.
An example of the films Ezra produced is below:
For much of their screen time, few in the Indian audience would have known that these pioneers were Jewish. Digging their legacies from history books is the task of projects such as Kenneth X. Robbin’s “Jews and the Indian National Art Project” and exhibitions like “Baghdadis & the Bene Israel in Bollywood and Beyond”. Diversity in Indian cinema is now a staple of the industry – though it remains dominated by ‘clans’ and dynasty. Haider Ali, who co-wrote Jodhaa Akbar, is none other than Pramila’s son
Sulochana, who taught the subcontinent how to kiss, died alone, barred from marrying outside of her community and finding none willing from within it. Interestingly, when Nadira passed away in 2006, it was her request to be cremated with Hindu ceremonies – though she was known to attend synagogue.
As always, India imbibes and reflects diversity from across the land. Without the Jewish contribution to early Indian cinema, audiences might have seen their first kiss decades too late. They taught the industry that boldness had a place on the silver screen – and more importantly, within society.
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