Stories Retold

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The perpetual millennial quest for self-expression just got another boost

Making adulting in the new millennium easier, one step at a time.

Having come of age in the Age of the Internet, millennials had a rocky start to self-expression. Indeed, the internet allowed us to personalise things in unprecedented fashion and we really rose to the occasion. The learning curve to a straightforward firstname.surname@___mail.com email address was a long one, routed through cringeworthy e-mail ids like coolgal1234@hotmail.com. You know you had one - making a personalised e-mail id was a rite of passage for millennials after all.

Declaring yourself to be cool, a star, a princess or a hunk boy was a given (for how else would the world know?!). Those with eclectic tastes (read: juvenile groupies) would flaunt their artistic preferences with an elitist flair. You could take for granted that bitbybeatlemania@hotmail.com and hpfan@yahoo.com would listen to Bollywood music or read Archie comics only in private. The emo kids, meanwhile, had to learn the hard way that employers probably don’t trust candidates with e-mail ids such as depressingdystopian@gmail.com.

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

And with chat rooms, early millennials had found a way to communicate, with...interesting results. The oldest crop of millennials (30+ year olds) learnt to deal with the realities of adolescent life hunched behind anonymous accounts, spewing their teenage hormone-laden angst, passion and idealism to other anonymous accounts. Skater_chick could hide her ineptitude for skating behind a convincing username and a skateboard-peddling red-haired avatar, and you could declare your fantasies of world domination, armed with the assurance that no one would take you seriously.

With the rise of blogging, millennial individualism found a way to express itself to millions of people across the world. The verbosity of ‘intellectual’ millennials even shone through in their blog URLs and names. GirlWhoTravels could now opine on her adventures on the road to those who actually cared about such things. The blogger behind scentofpetunia.blogspot.com could choose to totally ignore petunias and no one would question why. It’s a tradition still being staunchly upheld on Tumblr. You’re not really a Tumblr(er?) if you haven’t been inspired to test your creative limits while crafting your blog URL. Fantasy literature and anime fandoms to pop-culture fanatics and pizza lovers- it’s where people of all leanings go to let their alter ego thrive.

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Then of course social media became the new front of self-expression on the Internet. Back when social media was too much of a millennial thing for anyone to meddle with, avatars and usernames were a window into your personality and fantasies. Suddenly, it was cool to post emo quotes of Meredith Grey on Facebook and update the world on the picturesque breakfast you had (or not). Twitter upped the pressure by limiting expression to 140 characters (now 280-have you heard?) and the brevity translated to the Twitter handles as well. The trend of sarcasm-and-wit-laden handles is still alive well and has only gotten more sophisticated with time. The blogging platform Medium makes the best of Twitter intellect in longform. It’s here that even businesses have cool account names!

Self-expression on the Internet and the millennials’ love for the personalised and customised has indeed seen an interesting trajectory. Most millennial adolescents of yore though are now grownups, navigating an adulting crisis of mammoth proportions. How to wake up in time for classes, how to keep the boss happy, how to keep from going broke every month, how to deal with the new F-word – Finances! Don’t judge, finances can be stressful at the beginning of a career. Forget investments, loans and debts, even matters of simple money transactions are riddled with scary terms like beneficiaries, NEFT, IMPS, RTGS and more. Then there’s the quadruple checking to make sure you input the correct card, IFSC or account number. If this wasn’t stressful enough, there’s the long wait while the cheque is cleared or the fund transfer is credited. Doesn’t it make you wish there was a simpler way to deal with it all? If life could just be like…

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Lo and behold, millennial prayers have been heard! Airtel Payments Bank, India’s first, has now integrated UPI on its digital platform, making banking over the phone easier than ever. Airtel Payments Bank UPI, or Unified Payment Interface, allows you to transfer funds and shop and pay bills instantly to anyone any time without the hassles of inputting any bank details – all through a unique Virtual Payment Address. In true millennial fashion, you can even create your own personalised UPI ID or Virtual Payment Address (VPA) with your name or number- like rhea@airtel or 9990011122@airtel. It’s the smartest, easiest and coolest way to pay, frankly, because you’re going to be the first person to actually make instant, costless payments, rather than claiming to do that and making people wait for hours.

To make life even simpler, with the My Airtel app, you can make digital payments both online and offline (using the Scan and Pay feature that uses a UPI QR code). Imagine, no more running to the ATM at the last minute when you accidentally opt for COD or don’t have exact change to pay for a cab or coffee! Opening an account takes less than three minutes and remembering your VPA requires you to literally remember your own name. Get started with a more customised banking experience here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel Payments Bank and not by the Scroll editorial team.