This is the story of the rise and fall of Jews in the world’s largest film industry. Bollywood produces a thousand films annually, three times more than Hollywood does, in twenty different languages, which are seen by three billion people across the world.
Few realise that Jews played as important a role in Bollywood as they did in Hollywood, even if the roles differed in nature. Almost all of India’s earliest female stars were Jewish. The introduction of sound brought an abrupt end to many of their film careers for they were incapable of delivering dialogues in Indian languages as they had never mastered any. The few who were quick to learn survived.
Surprisingly of all the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the second most populous country of the world, these earliest female stars of India came from a minority within India’s smallest religious minority, the Jews, whose proportion is not more than 0.0004 per cent in its total population. The Baghdadis (as the Jews who came from a number of Middle Eastern countries and not just from the city of Baghdad came to be called in India), were one of the three Jewish communities in India and they were among those communities in India that completely Anglicised themselves in every respect. The only other numerically and commercially mentionable minority that did so was the Parsi (Zoroastrian) community, but its women were not the first to be bold enough to act in films, braving all the risks involved to their reputation and otherwise at a time when even the prostitutes shied away from acting in films. The initiative was taken by the Baghdadi Jewish women, highly Westernised in their lifestyle and outlook. Hence, they did not have the reservations when it came to indulgence in performing arts that women from other communities in India had, including the other Jewish communities, the Bene Israel and the Cochini (residents in India for a much longer period of time than the Baghdadis), had. By doing so they paved the way for women from respectable families from other communities to follow suit.
Though Arabian in their culture, the Baghdadi Jews completely Anglicised themselves and adopted English as their language. With a few exceptions, the Baghdadis identified themselves as far as possible with the rulers, the British, and not the ruled, the Indians, as it was disadvantageous, they believed, to identify with the Indians and moreover there was no Indian citizenship as such. They felt that as Jews from another, albeit Asian, country they could remain distinct and escape the worst aspects of the British-Indian relationship. Benefiting from the British policy of favouring small minorities whose numbers did not threaten them, they soon emerged as intermediaries between the British colonial masters and their Indian subjects. They even competed with another migrant community, the Armenian, to get recognised as European by the British. When they lost the competition to the Armenians they blamed their Jewishness for it and felt that Armenians has succeeded only because they were Christian.
The first star of Indian cinema was Sulochana (nee Ruby Myers, 1907-83). The extent of her fame is well illustrated by the fact she was also used to promote Khadi, the Indian handspun and handwoven cloth. A hugely popular dance of Sulochana’s from the film Madhuri was added to a short film on Mahatma Gandhi inaugurating a Khadi exhibition, which also happened to be India’s first talkie venture.
Ironically, when Sulochana’s home company Imperial launched the first genuine talkie film Alam Ara in 1931, it was not she, but her rival Zubeida who was chosen to play the female lead, because of her command over Hindi. But the indomitable Sulochana acquired such proficiency in Hindi in just a year’s time as to make an egoaffirming comeback with the recordbreaking talkie version of Madhuri. She once again reclaimed her positive distinction as the highest paid star of India cinema. She owned the sleekest of cars (Chevrolet 1935); and had one of the biggest heroes, D. Billimoria, as her lover. Her strong fan base empowered her to dictate terms to Imperial and ensure that between 1933 and 1939 she worked exclusively with her handsome Zoroastrian paramour.
Their love affair spanned the decades of the 1920s and 30s. With it ended their film careers too. She left Imperial only to find no outside offer, which landed her up in a grave economic crisis. The roles, though, kept diminishing, leading her to bankruptcy. She died a lonely death. The original glamour queen of Indian cinema, Sulochana was once famous for drawing a salary larger than that of the Governor of Bombay.
Pramila nee Esther Victoria Abraham (1911-2006), a film star of the silent era, was chosen the first Miss India in 1947 (the pageant was not organized by The Times of India Group then, as it is now). Born in a Baghdadi Jewish family of Kolkata, she won six art diplomas from London in the course of a brilliant academic career and became the headmistress of Talmud Torah Jewish Boys’ School, and it was a casual visit to the Imperial Studios in 1935 to watch a shooting, that brought her into films. Besides, her sister Sophie, known as Romilla, and her cousin Rose, were already in the film industry. During the course of this acting career, she married the famous star of those years, Kumar, a Rudolph Valentino kind of figure. Together, they produced many films under the banner of “Silver Films”. She was also a costume and jewellery designer and a consultant for set designs.
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