New Documentary Chronicles Jewish Contributions to Indian Cinema

by Noel De Souza August 11, 2018
A scene from "Shalowm Bollywood"

courtesy Shalom Bollywood

Documentary filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe focuses on the Jewish community in India and their contributions to Indian cinema. In his latest endeavor Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema. The documentary is light and airy, filled with music, dance and melodrama, which happened to be the requirements of the day, It was hard for him to come up with archival footage as not very much of it is preserved, but he works around these shortcomings with skill, managing to hold the viewers attention with interesting insights, interviews with living descendants and movie personalities. The film was just screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Jews have been in India since the Mogul period, integrating well into the fabric of the country. They first came as merchants and eventually settled in the country. Some of them had fled persecution in Bagdad and surrounding countries. Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived side by side in a secular nation, Jewish synagogues can be seen all over India, but the most prominent one is the one in Cochin in the south of India.

Cinema came to India well over a hundred years ago, but in its infancy, there were no actors willing to appear on camera as it was a profession frowned upon by Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Men played both male and female characters. Talk about being at the right place at the right time - the Jewish women having a more of open culture stepped in to save the day and were readily accepted; with their western features and attitudes, they dominated the silver screen from the 1920s to the 1960s.

There was Ruby Myers, whose screen name was Sulochana, meaning the one with the beautiful eyes. One of the highest-paid actresses of her time, she was working as a telephone operator when she was approached by the Kohinoor Film Company to act in their films. At first, she turned the offer down,  but they persisted, and she finally gave in.  This was during the silent film era, and she played eight different characters in The Wild Cats Of Bombay.  With the advent of talkies, there was a lull in her career as the actors had to be proficient in Hindi. Sulochana took a year off to learn the language fluently, and her career took off once again. But gradually her star faded and she was offered secondary roles. It was the 1960s and acting in films was no longer taboo, so Hindus, Muslims, and Christians entered the arena, increasing the competition. Nevertheless Ruby Myers/Sulochana had broken many barriers and paved the way for many actresses. Her last role was in 1981. In 1973 she was awarded the prestigious Babasaheb Award for her contribution to cinema. In 1983 she died, having lived her later years alone and forgotten, a sad ending for such a luminous personality.

 

Esther Victoria Abraham, who went by the screen name of Pramila, was crowned Miss India in 1947. She was a teacher before she entered the film industry; outside of her film accomplishments as actress and producer, Abraham/Pramila was a graduate of the University of Cambridge and a hockey champion winning many trophies. She always had the desire to become an actress but had never pursued her ambition, although her cousin Rose Ezra was acting in films. She visited her cousin on the set of Toofan Mail and her life changed- the director thought that this tall and glamorous girl would do greater justice to the role and so she was screen tested...  the rest is history. Her second marriage was to Muslim actor Sayed Hassan who, when the partition of India came into being, left her and the children and moved to Pakistan. Pramila however, practiced her Jewish faith till the very end. She was offered a couple of Hollywood films that never came to fruition as the Second World War had just broken out. Her life was not a bed of roses, she was arrested several times for traveling to Pakistan, under suspicion of being a spy, when in fact she had gone to promote her films. She also had to fight the government over properties that had been requisitioned. She died in at the age of 89.

And then there was Florence Ezekiel, who went by the screen name of Nadira. She had a very western look and always played the seductress, the vamp or the evil one. With her voluptuous figure, the characters she played were mostly clothed in body-fitting costumes which always gave the censors a headache. In her later years, Nadira played the roles of the mother - she played an Anglo-Indian mother in the film Julie, which won her the best supporting actress Film Fare Award. She commanded a good salary and was the first actress to own a Rolls Royce. Her life toward the end was a lonely one, her relatives left for Israel, but she chose to stay in India, living with her housemaid and dying at the age of 73, after a long illness.

There were a few more Jewess actresses in the 1940s and 50s, like Rachael Cohen and Rachal Sofaer. And there were also Jewish men who left their imprints on the industry, like David Abraham Cheulkar, a lawyer who became a character actor and was affectionately known to the public as Uncle David. Cheulkar represented India on official trips to Hollywood and was also a referee in the wrestling sport. He represented India at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and was present when the terrorist attack happened.

Another Jewish actor, Ezra Mir, worked briefly in Hollywood but returned to India where he produced some major films. And others like Benny Nathan Salamkar, who wrote the music for films;  and Pankar Issac, a cameraman and helped shape the Indian film industry.

Danny Ben-Moshe’s documentary sheds a light on these and more, highlighting the little-known contribution of the Jews on an industry that is now known as Bollywood.