The Jews of Bollywood
How Jews Established the World’s Largest Film Industry
By Navras Jaat Aafreedi
This is the story of the rise and fall of Jews in the world’s largest film industry. Bollywood produces a thousand films annually, three times more than Hollywood does, in twenty different languages, which are seen by three billion people across the world.
Few realise that Jews played as important a role in Bollywood as they did in Hollywood, even if the roles differed in nature. Almost all of India’s earliest female stars were Jewish. The introduction of sound brought an abrupt end to many of their film careers for they were incapable of delivering dialogues in Indian languages as they had never mastered any. The few who were quick to learn survived.
Surprisingly of all the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the second most populous country of the world, these earliest female stars of India came from a minority within India’s smallest religious minority, the Jews, whose proportion is not more than 0.0004 per cent in its total population. The Baghdadis (as the Jews who came from a number of Middle Eastern countries and not just from the city of Baghdad came to be called in India), were one of the three Jewish communities in India and they were among those communities in India that completely Anglicised themselves in every respect. The only other numerically and commercially mentionable minority that did so was the Parsi (Zoroastrian) community, but its women were not the first to be bold enough to act in films, braving all the risks involved to their reputation and otherwise at a time when even the prostitutes shied away from acting in films. The initiative was taken by the Baghdadi Jewish women, highly Westernised in their lifestyle and outlook. Hence, they did not have the reservations when it came to indulgence in performing arts that women from other communities in India had, including the other Jewish communities, the Bene Israel and the Cochini (residents in India for a much longer period of time than the Baghdadis), had. By doing so they paved the way for women from respectable families from other communities to follow suit.
Though Arabian in their culture, the Baghdadi Jews completely Anglicised themselves and adopted English as their language. With a few exceptions, the Baghdadis identified themselves as far as possible with the rulers, the British, and not the ruled, the Indians, as it was disadvantageous, they believed, to identify with the Indians and moreover there was no Indian citizenship as such. They felt that as Jews from another, albeit Asian, country they could remain distinct and escape the worst aspects of the British-Indian relationship. Benefiting from the British policy of favouring small minorities whose numbers did not threaten them, they soon emerged as intermediaries between the British colonial masters and their Indian subjects. They even competed with another migrant community, the Armenian, to get recognised as European by the British. When they lost the competition to the Armenians they blamed their Jewishness for it and felt that Armenians has succeeded only because they were Christian.
The first star of Indian cinema was Sulochana (nee Ruby Myers, 1907-83). The extent of her fame is well illustrated by the fact she was also used to promote Khadi, the Indian handspun and handwoven cloth. A hugely popular dance of Sulochana’s from the film Madhuri was added to a short film on Mahatma Gandhi inaugurating a Khadi exhibition, which also happened to be India’s first talkie venture.
Ironically, when Sulochana’s home company Imperial launched the first genuine talkie film Alam Ara in 1931, it was not she, but her rival Zubeida who was chosen to play the female lead, because of her command over Hindi. But the indomitable Sulochana acquired such proficiency in Hindi in just a year’s time as to make an ego affirming comeback with the record-breaking talkie version of Madhuri. She once again reclaimed her positive distinction as the highest paid star of India cinema. She owned the sleekest of cars (Chevrolet 1935); and had one of the biggest heroes, D. Billimoria, as her lover. Her strong fan base empowered her to dictate terms to Imperial and ensure that between 1933 and 1939 she worked exclusively with her handsome Zoroastrian paramour.
Their love affair spanned the decades of the 1920s and 30s. With it ended their film careers too. She left Imperial only to find no outside offer, which landed her up in a grave economic crisis. The roles, though, kept diminishing, leading her to bankruptcy. She died a lonely death. The original glamour queen of Indian cinema, Sulochana was once famous for drawing a salary larger than that of the Governor of Bombay.
Pramila nee Esther Victoria Abraham (1911-2006), a film star of the silent era, was chosen the first Miss India in 1947 (the pageant was not organized by The Times of India Group then, as it is now). Born in a Baghdadi Jewish family of Kolkata, she won six art diplomas from London in the course of a brilliant academic career and became the headmistress of Talmud Torah Jewish Boys’ School, and it was a casual visit to the Imperial Studios in 1935 to watch a shooting, that brought her into films. Besides, her sister Sophie, known as Romilla, and her cousin Rose, were already in the film industry. During the course of this acting career, she married the famous star of those years, Kumar, a Rudolph Valentino kind of figure. Together, they produced many films under the banner of “Silver Films.” She was also a costume and jewellery designer and a consultant for set designs.
Nadira (nee Farhat or Florence Ezekiel) (1932-2006) was spotted by the wife of the famous film director Mehboob Khan, a Muslim, when she was sheltering from a thunderstorm in a building. He cast her in the lead role of his technicolor extravaganza, Aan (1952), India’s first film in colour. Nadira, who had seen only two films and had never been photographed. Her mother, who wanted Nadira to settle down and marry a nice boy, was dismayed. Despite her pathetic financial condition, it was only after a great deal of persuasion that her mother agreed to a contract with Mehboob Khan, according to which Nadira was to be paid Rs. 1,200 per month, an unheard of amount in those days.
Aan proved to be a major hit and her debut performance in the film won her rave reviews. Nadira was surrounded by a coterie of male admirers. While Mehboob Khan flirted with her, an Urdu poet Naqshab won her over with his couplets; and Nadira ended up marrying him and infuriating her mother.
Nadira starred in Naqshab’s productions, Nagma and Raftaar (1955), but she felt exploited as she was forced to promote the films by posing for sexy posters, and on the other hand to observe purdah (Islamic seclusion). Naqshab even insisted that she cancel her three-year contract with Mehboob Khan; and on top of it all he announced that they were not married. Disgusted, Nadira walked out, leaving behind all her earnings.
Her foreign features and thin figure, which was quite unlike the buxom heroines patronized by film fans, made it difficult for her to resume her career. Fortunately, she landed up a vamp’s role in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 (1955).
The role required her to hold a smouldering cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other. The film’s great success made it her landmark style; and it was followed by negative roles in films which won her great accolades. Few could portray vindictiveness and malice with Nadira’s panache. She brought great style to the portrayal of the quintessential Westernised vamp of Hindi films. Her role as a Christian mother in Julie (1975), was a landmark performance, which fetched her fifteen awards. She also appeared in a few English films, notably the Merchant Ivory films The Guru (1969) and Cotton Mary (1999). She was well paid for her efforts and was one of the first Indian actors to own a Rolls Royce. Nadira passed away in a hospital in Mumbai on 9th February 2006 at the age of 73, suffering from a paralytic stroke combined with a heart attack.
Pearl Padamsee (1931-2000), was a distinguished actress of theatre and films. She added a new dimension to Indian theatre in general and Mumbai in particular, and presented the audience with many a notable actor and play. Her Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui is considered a milestone in Indian theatre. She emerged as a prominent face of crossover cinema and worked in many national and international film projects, in both Hindi and English, in a film career spanning over four decades. Some of her significant English language films are West is West (1987), Such a Long Journey (1998), and Kama Sutra (1996). She had adopted her Khoja Muslim husband, Alyque Padamsee’s surname.
Interestingly, of the few men among all the Baghdadis prominently active in Indian cinema, at the time, was the noted documentary film-maker, Ezra Mir (1903-1993), who came to be recognized as the father of Indian animation. He was born as Edwin Myers in Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta). He adopted the name Ezra Mir because he felt that his real name did not sound Indian. Mir started making documentaries in 1941 after being inspired by the March of Time newsreels. He worked for the Film Advisory Board (1940-41); Information Films of India (1942-46); India Film Enterprises (1949-51); and the Films Division, where he was Chief Producer (1956-61). During his five year tenure, the Films Division produced over 400 documentaries. He also worked as Producer-in-Charge for the Children’s Film Society of India (1962-64) from 1941 till his retirement from the Films Division in 1961. He was responsible, in various capacities, for over seven hundred documentaries. He was the first president of the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association (1956). Ezra Mir directed Pamposh, the first Indian colour film processed completely in India, using Gevacolour stock. The first Indian film to have an English version – Nur Jehan, was directed by Ezra Mir. He was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, in 1970 for his great contribution to Indian cinema.
There were many from the Bene Israel community, mostly men, who later joined the Baghdadis in films, not only as actors, but also in other capacities. The person to whom goes the credit for writing the screenplay of India’s first full length talkie, Alam Ara (1931), was the Bene Israel playwright Joseph David Penkar. A theatre manager of the third decade of the twentieth century, he was also the author of plays in Marathi and Urdu. Today, three of his plays – Queen Esther, The Maccabeen Warriors and Prince Ansalom – are archived in Israel. Alam Ara was a huge success. Tickets were sold for twenty times the admission rate as crowds thronged to see the first talkie venture of Indian cinema. After Alam Ara, he joined its production house, the Imperial Film Company, as a playwright and also got involved with film-producing, directing and music composing. Other screenplays followed to which he also composed the scores. Joseph David died in 1942.
A well-known Jewish film actor was David Abraham (1908-81). Abraham was awarded the Padma Shri award, for his roles as a character actor and for his promotion of Indian sports. He started his film career in 1941 and went on to act in over 110 films. He worked with India’s best film-makers ever, like the Academy Award winner and recipient of Dada Saheb Phalke Award, Satyajeet Ray. He is best known for his portrayal of John Chacha in the 1954 hit Boot Polish.
One of the most prominent film-journalists, cine-personality-biographers and film-historians of India was a Bene Israel, Bunny Rueben (1926-2007). He also produced a film and was the Director of Publicity to the most famous film-makers of India. In the 1970s, when Steven Spielberg decided to shoot portions of his sci-fi adventure Close Encounters of the Third Kind in India, he signed Bunny Reuben as the Director of Publicity, the best name in the field. Reuben started his film-journalistic career in the 1940s with his contributions to the film-weekly Movie Times. Reuben went on to become a full-time film-journalist with the leading National Standard, now known as The Indian Express. From the National Standard, he moved on to Bharat Jyoti, the Sunday edition of Free Press Journal. Reuben later joined India’s foremost film-magazine Filmfare, a publication of The Times of India Group.
But in the 1950s Reuben left Filmfare to pursue his dream of producing a film, because Filmfare’s policy did not permit a journalist to pursue any other occupation. Aashiq (Lover), the film he produced and for which he wrote, was not a commercial success, as the subject of the film was well before its time, of a man torn between his family and his muse. Reuben finally returned to film-journalism by joining a new film-magazine Star & Style. He rose to become its editor in 1969 and continued to work in that capacity until 1974. In 1975, Reuben became the founding-editor of the magazine Cine-Blitz, and within a year brought its circulation to 100,000, at par with other established magazines of the day. Reuben also wrote a full-page column in the Sunday tabloid The Daily, now defunct, and wrote regularly for Sunday Free Journal, Sakal, Kesari, Maharashtra Herald, and many others. From 2004 to 2005, Reuben wrote a series of articles on all the great stars he had personally known since the early 1950s for the daily newspaper The Asian Age.
Reuben also established himself as a definitive biographer of film-personalities. In 1990, Reuben was honoured with the Twentieth Century Cine-goers Award for “excellence in film-journalism,” and in 1994 the Sahyog Foundation Award for the Best Film Journalist was conferred upon him.
Considering the remarkable contributions of Jews to Indian cinema, it is surprising that it produced only six films with Jewish characters, with only two of them with Indian Jewish characters, viz., Gramophone (Malayalam) and Mr. & Mrs Iyer (English). There are still a few Jews active in Indian cinema, but people are hardly aware of this as it isn’t possible to identify them as Jews from their names. Coming from mixed marriages, they are Jewish only according to the Jewish law, as they are all born of Jewish mothers. They are the famous actor and film screenplay writer Haider Ali, son of the first Miss India (1947), Pramila nee Esther Victoria Abraham, and the famous trio of Roy Kapur brothers, viz., producer Siddharth and actors, Kunal and Aditya, sons of Salome Aaron, Eve’s Weekly Miss India (1973). In recent years there have been some attempts to bring the Jewish contributions to Indian cinema in limelight. Australia’s Deakin University’s Associate Professor Danny Ben-Moshe is in the process of producing a documentary film on the subject, titled, Shalom Bollywood, while Kenneth X. Robbins recently held an exhibition titled, “Baghdadis and the Bene Israel in Bollywood and Beyond: Indian Jews in the Movies” at the Leon Levy Gallery in the US and is currently editing a book on the subject.
Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi is an Indo-Judaic Studies Scholar, working as Assistant Professor of History at Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA (India). He is also the Executive Director of the Youth Outreach Programme of the Society for Social Regeneration & Equity, an NGO dedicated to the promotion of interfaith amity by bringing the minority contributions to India into the limelight. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A very special thank you to Stephanie Comfort for her permission to include these images in AJL. Stephanie has been collecting postcards of Jewish life, synagogues and towns from around the world for many years. Tour her incredible 15,000+ Jewish postcard collection at jewishpostcardcollection.com. It is truly remarkable.
Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.