Two things caught Danny Ben-Moshe’s eye when he read an obituary of renowned Hindi film actor Nadira in 2006. One was her real name, Florence Ezekiel. The other was what he termed her “raunchy vamp” identity.
The Australian filmmaker’s research revealed that Nadira was one of the last Jewish actors in Hindi cinema. Nadira was part of a long tradition of men and women of the Jewish faith who changed their names after entering the movie trade, including Sulochana (Ruby Meyers), Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) and Rose Musleah. Many of the actors were Baghdadi Jews, who traced their origins to Iraq. “Indian cinema owes a deep debt of gratitude to the Baghdadi Jewish community,” Kenneth X Robbins writes. “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.” Others were from the Bene Israeli community, such as David.
Ben-Moshe’s engrossing documentary Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema revisits this fascinating chapter in Indian film history. Apart from interviews with the family members and friends of the actors, the documentary includes film clips and animation that brings still images to life. Made over 11 years, Shalom Bollywood will be premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18).
What was it about Nadira’s obituary that made you believe that there was a documentary there?
As a filmmaker and a consumer of films, you always want to be surprised by a story, and I was surprised. At the time, I was a professor at a university. It wasn’t just that there was one Jewish actress in Bollywood, which would have in itself been a surprise. It was that there was this raunchy, quintessential vamp superstar. If someone is a superstar, that takes the surprise to a whole new level.
I am a big consumer of Jewish films as a filmmaker. And I thought this could be something new and different, both in terms of the subject matter and also in the way the story could be told.
How much did you know about Hindi films before you set out to make your documentary?
Before I came across the article, I knew very little. I will go further than that and say I knew nothing about the subject matter. It is not like I am a Bollywood aficionado. I was not big into Indian cinema. I had to start from scratch.
So when I came to India for the first time, I stayed in a synagogue in Byculla and started talking to people. I was also guided by the leader of the Jewish community in Mumbai.
What makes the phenomenon of Jewish stars in Hindi films unique? Have you seen anything like this elsewhere?
There was a film called Hollywoodism about Jews in Hollywood. Outside of India, people always ask me if my film is about the Jewish producers, like they were in America. It was really the women who were in the front and centre, as opposed to the men. Today this wouldn’t happen for obvious reasons.
In the beginning, I thought I was making a film just about Nadira. But interestingly, she was the last one. To have that Jewish presence and Jewish women is quite unique.
You say in your director’s note that India has been uniquely free of antisemitism.
Jews everywhere in the world unfortunately grow up knowing that antisemitism, or the hatred of Jews, is a part of their history and remains a threat to their lives across the world.
And then I came to India. Coming here as a diaspora Jew, one of the first questions I asked the Jewish interviewees was about antisemitism. And they looked at me like my question was crazy and asked me, “What antisemitism?” I realised that there is something really unique about the Indian Jewish experience.
How challenging was it to find accurate information and line up the interviews?
Haidar Ali [Pramila’s son] was extremely forthcoming. But there were others who were very hard to track down, such as Rachel Reuben (Rose Musleah’s granddaughter). It involved quite a lot of detective work. And, of course, Nadira had no children. There were people I couldn’t find.
The National Film Archive of India is also not the best organisation to deal with. A lot of the studios didn’t exist anymore. So it was took years of work to track these films down.
I made my first trip to India in 2006. We really kicked in between 2012 and 2015. Sometimes, the film would take a different direction. Once I was able to track down and meet David’s family in Canada, that opened a whole new world of information and resource and interviews.
You have used quirky stop-motion animation visuals and hand-drawn sketches.
Part of the problem, of course, was that all the Jewish stars were deceased. But I was lucky to get footage of an archival interview with Pramila. I was able to include her as a first-person voice in the film.
I wanted to do the same thing with the others. I thought there would be footage, but when I couldn’t get any of that stuff, I worked on the film stills. Because I wanted them to be present, I thought of animating the stills. It was kind of like bringing them back to life.