In Shalom Bollywood, the Jewish women who were the Hindi film industry's first actresses come to life

Neerja Deodhar

Dec 02, 2017 12:01:42 IST

When asked to name some of the first Indian actresses who worked in the Hindi film industry, many of us will recall legends such as Madhubala, Nargis and Suraiya. They remain memorable because of their enrapturing looks, nuanced acting and choice of films. But these actresses weren't the first to appear on the big screen; they stood on the shoulders of giants who came before them — women from the Indian Jewish community. These women may have formed a minuscule portion of the country's population even a century ago, but they were the most successful stars of their time. Director Danny Ben-Moshe in his documentary Shalom Bollywood explores how the women from this settler-trader community came to pave the way for the entry of women into cinema, and how they achieved stardom in a matter of a few years.

Ben-Moshe's film can serve as an encyclopaedic repository of information. He manages to put together stories spanning decades, right from the 20s when silent movies were still the rage and sound was not yet a feature in films. It took him 11 years to make Shalom Bollywood, and when he initially came to India, he wanted to make a film solely based on the life of Nadira (Florence Ezekiel), a superstar who he says defined "both a kind of character and era".  She starred in many big-budget projects such as Aan, Pakeezah, and Shree 420. Through the story of Nadira's superstar status, he wanted to make a film about the Jewish community in India. But when he reached Mumbai, he found himself falling into an information black hole; he knew that there were Jews in India, but he had no clue that there were so many of them who had a prominent place in Bollywood. Consequently, the actresses took the centrestage and the larger angle of the Jews became a back story.

 In Shalom Bollywood, the Jewish women who were the Hindi film industrys first actresses come to life

Nadira, or Florence Ezekiel, in a still from a film

In the early days of film making in India, it was considered taboo for women to act, as was the case with theatre, too. This was especially true of Hindu and Muslim women, and the parts of female characters would be enacted by men and young boys. Jewish women found themselves at an advantage in such a situation, not just because of their European looks, but largely owing to the progressive nature of their community. "It was a very modern, educated community. They part of the elite, outward looking, and familiar with Hollywood films. They had connections with the Jewish diaspora community overseas, and were involved in trade. The community was small, but it was global in its outlook," explains Ben-Moshe. While the Jews in Hollywood set up production houses, the Jews in India solved the problem of lack of actresses. Many of them were dancers in the theatre groups and productions owned by Parsis. When Parsi producers transitioned into cinema, they brought these girls with them.

The result was a list of actresses who did not have Indian features but wore saris and bindis, and who did not shy away from playing characters with shades of grey, or even outright vamps. They made eyes at the lead male characters and danced. They had a monopoly over the lead roles in big films until the entry of Hindu and Muslim women in Hindi cinema. Their identities are particularly interesting, because they were simultaneously Jewish and Indian; they played Indian characters but the distinctiveness of their roots remained intact and allowed them to find work. "This is a testament to India, the country that enabled them to be Jewish and Indian at the same time — they did not have to choose. There was no anti-Semitism, which was common to the rest of the world in that era," explains Ben-Moshe.

Sulochana in a still from Prem Ki Jyot. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Sulochana in a still from Prem Ki Jyot. Image from Wikimedia Commons

In his film, he has admittedly only focused on the actors who were megastars — Nadira, Sulochana, Pramila, Rose and David. Sulochana, whose original name was Ruby Myers, was one of the highest paid actresses of her time and was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Her stardom is evident from the fact that she played not one, not two, but eight roles in one of her films! Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) was the country's first Miss India, and went on to become one of the first female producers in the industry. In the midst of the life stories of these actresses, Ben-Moshe also tells the story of an unlikely actor David, who was not conventionally good looking or tall, but who managed to garner much success owing to his charming disposition and acting skills. You probably know him from the popular song 'Nanhe Munne Bacche' which was part of the 1954 film Boot Polish.

The director manages to weave in smaller details about these actresses' fascinating lives. In one scene, the viewer is told about how despite achieving much success in silent films, Sulochana missed out on being part of the first talkie (movie with sound) because she couldn't speak Hindi. "She took a year off to learn and dropped off the pedestal," Ben-Moshe explains. Scripts for Rose were often written in English to help her learn her Hindi dialogues. "She was told that she should emote non-verbally. One of the directors she worked with said she was full of life because she communicated with her eyes and smile," he adds. There are several scenes that talk about their busy social lives and how the future generations of these stars have fared.

Pramila in a poster for a film where she played Tarzan's wife. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Pramila in a poster for a film where she played Tarzan's wife. Image from Facebook/@journeythroughpast

Did their on-screen personas affect how they were perceived by society, as was the case with Fearless Nadia? "It certainly didn't stop people from watching their films," replies Ben-Moshe. He says that because of their off-screen personalities and devil-may-care attitude, they did not feel they were in any way shunned or excluded, or even looked down upon. "Sulochana was a topic of more discussions in Parliament than the Viceroy, but she didn't care. There was a commission into Indian cinema in the 20s, and they called her before this body and she declared, 'This is what I do, you can do what you wish to do'" he says.

Their tremendous confidence as individuals stemmed from the community they belonged to, opines the director, adding that the values and ethics of Jews in India empowered the women as much as the men. "They drank, they smoked, they wore modern clothes. Within their own cultural remit, it was not a problem. When they went home, home was accepting; when they went to the synagogue, the synagogue was accepting. I'm sure some people looked down upon them, but they had their own inner conviction that allowed them to say, 'Well, too bad!'" he adds. He says that the phenomenon of Jewish women breaking open the doors for women of other communities in Bollywood is characteristic of the community, which pushes boundaries and goes where no one else has in several fields.

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Updated Date: Dec 02, 2017 12:02:48 IST