Jews in Bollywood

Jewish women were at the forefront of India’s film industry – an exhibition in New York celebrates their achievements.

Florence Ezekiel Nadira, sometimes considered the Indian Elizabeth Taylor, in a scene from ‘Shree 420’ (photo credit: PR)
Florence Ezekiel Nadira, sometimes considered the Indian Elizabeth Taylor, in a scene from ‘Shree 420’
(photo credit: PR)
CONJURING UP stereotypical images of Jews in Hollywood, we might imagine barking producers, savvy directors or silly comedians – most of them men. But in Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindifilm industry in India, the Jews who rose to prominence, coming mainly from the Baghdadi community, were primarily women – some with leading roles, while others also became producers.
Both the women and men of the Jewish community in India are currently featured in an exhibit called “Baghdadis and the Bene Israel in Bollywood and Beyond” at New York’s Center for Jewish History organized by the American Sephardi Federation, and co-curated by ASF historian Elisabeth M. Stevens and independent scholar and researcher Kenneth X. Robbins.
“In Hindu and Muslim culture, women weren’t allowed to act in films,” Stevens tells The Jerusalem Report. “It was considered uncouth, akin to selling your body. Jewish women followed different ideals and entered the industry at a crucial time when it was just starting out.”
One of the earliest of these figures was Rachel Sofaer – who was reportedly allowed to act in films at a young age while accompanied daily by her mother. Acting in the early 1920s under the Hindu name Arati Devi, she starred in “Punarianma: A Life Divine” and “A Man Condemned,” but after getting married at the age of 21 she never acted again. It wasn’t the social stigma of acting that stopped her, but that of women working at all – which made them independent and undesirable. Sofaer eventually died during childbirth at the age of 35.
A more prominent figure, remaining in the film industry for several decades, was Ruby Myers – who acted under the name Sulochana. Among other things, she was known for “the kiss that got past the censors” with Dinshaw Billimoria in the “Hamara Hindustan” (1930). For many decades after, there were no kisses in Indian cinema.
“She was considered a foundational member of the craft,” says Stevens. “She had a lot of hits and transitions from silent films to ‘talkies.’” The transition from silent to sound films, adds Stevens, would not have been simple for Myers since Jews didn’t typically speak Hindustani. Yet, she not only made the transition but also became the highest paid actress in the industry.
By the mid-1930s, Myers established her own film studio, called Rubi Pics, through which she promoted other actresses. She lost her popularity as her on-screen and offscreen romance with Billimoria ended, but continued to play small roles in films until the early 1980s. She died in 1983.
Another prominent figure, whose star rose just as Sulochana’s began to wane, was Pramila – the stage name for Esther Victoria Abraham. Coming from a family with a history in theater, she went into film by following her cousins – Rose Ezra, known as Dancing Rose, and Sophie, known as Romila. While visiting her cousins on set, she ended up being signed as an actress herself. Her breakout film was “Bhikaran” (1935) and, aside from starring in many other films, she was also known as an expert seamstress and designer – often creating her own dresses and saris, becoming a fashion star, as well.
Before her acting career, Abraham married a theater actor from the Marwari Indian ethnic group and gave birth to a son named Maurice, but the marriage was annulled by her family. In 1939, after her acting career took off, Abraham married fellow actor Syed Hasan Ali Zaidi, known as Kumar, a practicing Muslim, though she is reported to have remained a practicing Jew all her life.
Over the next nine years, Abraham gave birth to four more children, winning the first ever Miss India title in 1947 while pregnant with her last. Of her five children with Zaidi, three became Muslim, one Jewish and one Hindu. Her daughter, Naqi Jahan, went on to win the Miss India title 20 years later in 1967. They are still the only motherdaughter team to have ever won the title.
“She [Abraham] never played submissive roles,” says Stevens. “She was seen as a modern woman, independent, self-aware.”
In 1942, Abraham and her husband started a film production company called Silver Films, and when Zaidi decided to move to Pakistan, she remained in India with her children and continued with her production company and some acting. She had many financial and legal problems afterward but managed to care for her children and help launch their careers in film and modeling – dying at the age of almost 90.
A racier figure in the Indian film industry was Florence Ezekiel Nadira, known to audiences only as Nadira, who was sometimes considered the Indian Elizabeth Taylor.
“Nadira often played temptresses,” says Stevens, adding that she was often cast as a vamp. Stevens also recalls a quote Nadira is reported to have told a journalist who’d come to interview her, “Don’t sit on the edge of the bed, you’ll fall off. Come closer, sit comfortably. I won’t seduce you.” She was a major draw, and her face is the largest image seen on the poster for the film “Aan” (1952), which was also India’s first film in Technicolor.
Stevens adds that, as she matured, Nadira shifted into maternal roles. At the same time, she became increasingly religious, and a 1977 issue of the “Star & Style” tabloid shows her with a head covering near a hanukkia with the bold title “Nadira’s Search for God.” Nadira continued to act through 2001. She died in 2006, at the age of 73.
One important element to note in all these careers is that, while none of the women necessarily hid their Jewish identities, they always used Hindu or Muslim names on screen.
“Most actors and actresses didn’t identify as Jewish,” notes Stevens. “They had a kind of dual identity. They never played Jewish roles.”
But there may be a reason for that as it seems there weren’t many Jewish roles to play – and the one major ones that could have existed were never played by Jews.
These roles involved the main characters of an Urdu play from 1913 titled “Yahudi.”
“Yahudi” is a story about a Jewish boy in ancient Rome who accidentally hits a priest with a stone and is sentenced to death by being thrown to hungry animals. The father’s slave kidnaps the priest’s daughter and brings her to the Jewish father – who raises her as his own. A plot full of twists, with cross-religious love interests, results in the daughter being sentenced to death by her own father.
“It’s hard to explain why this story is so popular,” says Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, director of the American Sephardi Federation.
“It wasn’t written by a Jewish playwright, and it never had any Jewish actors.” But the fact is that “Yahudi” has already been made into a film three times.
WHILE JEWISH women were at the forefront of acting in Indian cinema, Jewish men in the industry tended to work behind the scenes. The exception was David Abraham Cheulkar, known merely as David, a member of the Bene Israel community, whose long career started in the late 1940s and continued throughout his life, with two films appearing after his death in 1981. David was especially known for his role in “Boot Polish” (1954), which won the Filmfare Award for Best Film, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and earned him Filmfare’s Best Supporting Actor Award. He was also highly popular as a television host, sportscaster and news anchor.
Two Jewish men from India created careers for themselves abroad. Abraham Sofaer, Rachel Sofaer’s cousin, began acting on the London stage and later moved to Broadway and Hollywood, appearing in theater, cinema and television. Ruben Joseph Minney, who came to be known as R.J. Minney, left India for England, and wrote “Clive of India,” which was made into a Hollywood film in 1935.
Of those who stayed in India, other than David, the two main male figures to emerge in the cinema world remained off screen.
Joseph David was best known for script writing credits in films starring Australian actress Mary Ann Evans – helping create the mega-hit “Hunterwali (A Woman with a Whip)” (1935) – which launched her as the first female action hero in India.
Ezra Mir, born Edwyn Myers, who started his career in the US as both an actor and director, came back to India to establish a long career, first in narrative films, and from the early 1940s directing and editing documentaries.
During World War II, he edited newsreels, and went on to work on over 700 films. He was appointed chief producer of the Information Ministry’s Films Division in 1956 and, in 1970, received the Padma Shri, India’s major civilian award. Among his best known documentaries is “Voice of Satan” (1940), which described the Nazi use of propaganda in the media.
To celebrate the multitude of accomplishments and traces left by the Jewish community in India, most of which over time has moved to the US and Israel, the American Sephardi Federation is dedicating a special event during its mid-March Sephardic Film Festival called “Bollywood Night.” The evening will feature Kenneth Robbins presenting an interactive lecture about his research. The festival will also feature the film “Beqassor” (1950), starring Pramila.
In this sense, the ASF’s events are not only meant to entertain, but also as outreach for individuals and communities that have not yet recorded their histories.