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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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As corporate India changes from strait-jacketed to stylish, here’s how you can stay on-trend

For men and women, tips to make your office style game strong.

Office wear in India tends to be conservative. For men, the staple blue or white shirt and dark trouser arranged in a monotonous assembly line has been a permanent feature of the wardrobe (a tactic shrewdly administered to ensure minimum time is spent shopping). For women, androgynous work wear has been ever reliable and just as dull.

But camouflage is of no use in the corporate jungle anymore. The Indian office is no longer a place for dull, unthinking conformity, it is a place that expects vibrancy in thought and action. With a younger workforce and a greater mix of multinationals and jobs, there is a greater acceptance of edgier trends. Men are stepping away from their blues and greys and women are reshaping their workwear to be more interesting and distinctly feminine. As corporate India is proving its mettle on the global stage and to itself, it’s also growing confident in expressing individuality and style in the formal work environment. From clothing to office décor and fashion accessories to work tools, the workplace is becoming a place to display merit as well as taste.

Work clothes have shed their monochrome and moved into the light of technicolor. Bright colours have steadily become popular as Pantone’s annual colours of the year show us. For the corporate warrior who wants to be stylish here is our pick of trends worth considering.


Statement jacket. A statement jacket is one that doesn’t merely stand out in a crowd, but blows it open for you. How do you recognize one? You’ll know it when you see it. Most statement jackets have a non-traditional color. They could also have subtle prints on them if you want to go funky.

Technicolor socks. Multicolored socks (or hipster socks as they are known in some quarters) peek out every once in a while and brighten things up in the workplace. From polka dots and caricatures to geometric patterns, you can choose a pair to suit your mood or your workplace. A great way of telling people you don’t take fashion rules seriously (except these ones).

Plaid: Well played is well, plaid. Great for your 9-to-5 and even performs well after. Plaids, in shirts and jackets, are perhaps the most versatile tool in the corporate warrior’s armory, and straddle the fine line between formal and casual effectively. They’re also age-resistant meaning a young buck in his twenties can rock them as much as your seasoned forty-plus campaigner. Plaid, though Scottish in origin, has an Indian connection too, in the Madras checks that became popular all over the world after the World War.

Inside collars and cuffs. If you like to keep it classy but still a little edgy, nothing does it like contrast or printed insides of your collar and cuffs. After the work day, when it’s proper to roll up your sleeves, it even adds a touch of evening character.

Coloured Shoes. Alternate your staid blacks and browns with variants like burgundy, light buttery browns and ashen blues. Play with moccasins, tassel loafers and lace-ups. Go beyond leather and try suede and maybe even canvas. But do remember to take a quick course in matching.


Floral prints. Flowers are back (though one could argue that they never went out) and now they’re storming the bastion of your office. Even the traditional Indian paisley is making its way into formal wear. With the prevalence of digital printing, with a little hunting, you’ll even find beautiful florals in watercolour style.

Scarves. The first rule of wearing scarves is to rid yourself of the notion that they are to be worn only in winter. A colourful scarf paired with a monochrome top works wonders. A dozen online videos will teach you to wear it in a dozen ways. Plus, it always comes in handy when the thermostat isn’t to your liking. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw wears scarves frequently, and is a great example of how you can use it strikingly.

Pants. Yes. Pants. Experiment with different styles and you’ll be surprised how they can really spruce up a boring look. Silhouette is everything when it comes to pants. Choose from high-waisted, wide legged, pleated to ankle length pants and what not! The best part is offices rarely prescribe silhouettes, so you can always get by with some style even if your workplace demands a uniform.

Houndstooth. The houndstooth pattern is at the sweet intersection between casual and formal and can be worn to make a splash in either occasion. Whether its jackets or a dress or a simple top, a houndstooth pattern is incredibly versatile.

Chic suits. A sharp suit is a must for a modern professional’s wardrobe. And please don’t even look in the direction of black. Pastel colours or even greys with patterns are great options for suits. Uncoordinated suits are also a great option depending on how edgy you want your office attire to be.


It isn’t enough to be well-dressed in the modern workplace. A good professional is known by his or her tools and how they carry it.

Designer laptop sleeves. Your high-precision instrument deserves a cover chosen with as much care. Black Neoprene is out. Pastel monochromes, geometric patterns and bold designs are very much in. Different materials like cotton, leather and even paper are a great option.

Natural fiber or leather bags (yes kill your black synthetic one now). Briefcases are ancient and black messenger bags are done. Go for a color variant or a subtle pattern. Pay attention to the different leather finishes. Adding a few nicely done metal trims can make all the difference. But convenience and ease are top priority. If you travel a lot, get a stylish strolley and thank yourself later.

Commute pack. The urban corporate needs to be productive at all times, or at the very least, needs to be accessible. A modern commute pack should include wireless headphones, a USB battery pack (power bank) and a wire/gadget organisation pack just so that you’re always prepared.

Machine. We’ve all showed off our latest smartphones. Your work machine is way more important. And like in smartphones, a good laptop is no longer only about performance. The specifications must be top-notch but it has also become an expression of your personality. It can up your style quotient and significantly impact your experience.

Source: Dell
Source: Dell

The Dell XPS 13 is one device that achieves excellence in both form and function. With a virtually borderless infinity display that maximises screen space, and measuring a super slim 9-15mm, the Dell XPS 13 is an unalloyed delight. A sixth generation Intel® Core™ processor and the latest Intel HD graphics gives cutting edge performance for 18 hours and 14 minutes per charge—the longest battery life in any 13-inch device. The Dell XPS 13 epitomises the ethos of the modern day corporate warrior—chic and smart. To make even more of a fashion statement, you now get a free TUMI laptop sleeve worth Rs. 9000 with your XPS notebook purchase (offer valid till 31st October). For more information about the Dell XPS 13, see here.


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

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