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Flashback: The Jewish women who dominated the Indian cinema screen

In the silent film era, many Indian film stars were from the small Baghdadi Jewish and Bene Israel communities who didn't speak Hindi or Urdu.

Indian cinema owes a deep debt of gratitude to the Baghdadi Jewish community. Its women were the first to act in films, at a great risk to their reputation, at a time when the participation of women in performing arts was a taboo. During the silent era, most of India’s film stars were Jewish. But barring a few, they could not continue with their successful careers once the talkies were introduced as they were incapable of delivering dialogues in Hindi because of their Anglicised upbringing. This photo essay chronicles the Jewish contributions to Indian cinema.

An Indian stamp issued in 2013 in honour of Sulochana (Ruby Meyers). She was a Baghdadi Jew from Pune.
An Indian stamp issued in 2013 in honour of Sulochana (Ruby Meyers). She was a Baghdadi Jew from Pune.

The great actress Sulochana was recently commemorated on an Indian stamp. Since a number of Indian Jews performed and worked in the movie industry, I have decided to follow up the recently published Jews and the Indian National Art Project and Western Jews in India with a volume dealing with this subject. The illustrations are from my ever-growing archival collection.

The study of Jewish artists, art scholars, art critics, and architects in South Asia had confirmed the words of scholar Hermann Goetz: “Part of the most representative artists of every nation prove to be foreigners or semi-foreigners, or at least people with very strong family or cultural links with other countries”.

Many of the Jews involved in the Indian art world were Western Jews, but almost no non-Indian Jews played prominent roles in the Indian movie industry. Art can be seen without recognising the artist's image, but an actor must be seen in a film and must be convincing as an Indian.

Joan Roth’s photograph of the actress Nadira with the Star of David and a statue of Devi Mahatmya behind her.
Joan Roth’s photograph of the actress Nadira with the Star of David and a statue of Devi Mahatmya behind her.

The actors were mostly Baghdadi Jewish women and the rest were from the Bene Israel community, not the Cochini community. That community was small, did not speak Hindi or Urdu, and lived far from the film-making cities of Bombay and Calcutta. A single Baghdadi family contributed greatly to Indian films by giving us the actress-producer Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham), her sister the actress Romila (Sophie Abraham), and her cousin, the starlet Rose (Rose Musleah). Pramila’s son Haider Ali is an actor, who is best known as the co-writer of the blockbuster film Jodhaa Akbar.

The actress-producer Pramila was also the first Miss India.
The actress-producer Pramila was also the first Miss India.

Baghdadi Jewish actresses were known by single Western names (Lillian, Rose), Hindu names (Arati Devi, Pramila, Sulochana) or Muslim names (Firoza Begum, Nadira) rather than the ones identifying them as Jews. Lillian’s birth name was Lillian Ezra.

In India, the Bene Israel often referred to themselves in two ways. They used one or two “Biblical” names, or “Biblical” names followed by a “Maharashtrian” surname identifying their ancestral Konkani village. In the movies, they were billed as David or David Abraham rather than David Abraham Cheulkar or Joseph David, rather than Joseph David Penkar.

Simply identifying Jews has not been easy. Asha Bhende (once Lily Ezekiel) and Pearl Padamsee (whose mother was a Baghdadi Jew) are actresses who have used the last names of their non-Jewish husbands. Asha Bhende was also a prominent academic, whose works include Demographic and Socio Economic Characteristics of Jews in India.

Actresses like Zeenat Aman and Helen were not Jewish as some think. The backgrounds of Azurie, Leela Chitnis, Patience Cooper, Ermeline, Rinku Jaiswal, Kitty Kelly, Kamlesh Kumari, and Sabita Devi are contested even today and I seek more information about them. Was Vimala, whose birth name was Marcia Solomon and who is never mentioned in the discourse on Jewish actresses, Jewish?

Contrary to popular belief, the actress Helen is not Jewish.
Contrary to popular belief, the actress Helen is not Jewish.

Is this just a lack of information or does it relate to what Priti Ramamurthy called the “interracial origins, and fluid minority religious affiliations” of Anglo-Indian and Baghdadi actresses”? As small minority groups, diaspora Jews have had to deal with ever-changing political currents and life experiences beyond their own communities. Therefore, it is not surprising to find Jewish actresses in parts dealing with the redefinition of gender roles in a modernising India dealing with colonial hegemony, and the need to integrate many very diverse communities into an emerging national narrative.

On the Indian stage, female parts were acted by men and no respectable woman was seen. As Ramamurthy put it, “racial differentiation was both the condition for women to enter a disreputable profession and the condition for reworking it.” In some cases, Anglo-Indian and Baghdadi Jewish actresses may have been favoured for their lighter skin tones.

Arati Devi in 'Punarianma: A Life Divine'. When Rachel Sofaer’s father fell on hard times financially, he permitted his daughter to act under the name Arati Devi. She was accompanied to the set by her mother and married a Baghdadi Jewish man in 1933 at age 21, never again acting in a film. Her cousin Abraham Sofaer became a Hollywood character actor.
Arati Devi in 'Punarianma: A Life Divine'. When Rachel Sofaer’s father fell on hard times financially, he permitted his daughter to act under the name Arati Devi. She was accompanied to the set by her mother and married a Baghdadi Jewish man in 1933 at age 21, never again acting in a film. Her cousin Abraham Sofaer became a Hollywood character actor.

They played cosmopolitan Indian modern women, who could exercise individual autonomy, be seductive, enter the public domain, and work outside home. They could become another person by changing their clothing, by simply wearing a dress or sari. In Wildcat of Bombay, Sulochana played eight roles ranging from a Hyderabadi gentleman to a European blonde. Some actresses were also assertive off-the screen as both Pramila and Sulochana had their own production companies.

Rose, in Western and Indian dress.
Rose, in Western and Indian dress.

Neepa Majumdar has discerned a big change in talkie remakes of Sulochana’s silent movies since they placed her “in roles that staged her regulation into norms of Hindu womanhood” rather than those testing limits for women’s activities. Later storylines tended to make a nationalistic contrast between the “good Indian woman” (mother and companion wife) and the “bad” over-sexualised Westernised “vamp”, whose ethnicity and “race” were seen as more “fluid”.

Nadira in 'The Guru'.
Nadira in 'The Guru'.

The Baghdadi Jewish actresses Nadira and Pramila were known for such roles. As CS Lakshmi put it: “Pramila’s death signifies the end of an era of films that had women and the nation as their core concerns. 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. Pramila was almost always cast as the educated woman who still had to understand the true values of Bharat. She was the woman who played the piano and fluttered her eyes at the hero. Despite the negativity, such roles put her in, Pramila, with her wit and charm, always managed to outshine the heroine trying to portray the ‘true’ Indian woman.”

The ability to move between different worlds was an asset to Jewish writers and film-makers. Joseph David Penkar was a prolific playwright, screenwriter, director, and lyricist. He wrote and directed in Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu while being fluent in Hebrew and English. Like many other members of the Bene Israel community, he lived in the cosmopolitan environment of Bombay without losing either his Jewish or Indian roots.

On the other hand, RJ Minney and many other Baghdadi Jews in India did not see themselves as Indians. Minney was a biographer, writer, screenwriter, film producer, and journalist best known for books written in English in the voice of an Englishman and films like Clive of India made in Britain and Hollywood. Some Baghdadis like the prolific filmmaker Ezra Mir did emphasise their Indian roots. He returned from Hollywood to make major films like Noorjehan and Zarina as well as hundreds of documentaries.

The book will also deal with Jewish film critics, technicians, musicians, directors, and choreographers, dramatists, and filmmakers. Source: Nissim Moses
The book will also deal with Jewish film critics, technicians, musicians, directors, and choreographers, dramatists, and filmmakers. Source: Nissim Moses


This article first appeared on Cafe Dissensus.

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