The Untold Story of Jews who built Bollywood
by Shelley Kasli at Great Game India
NOTE : When Indian cinema began, it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women from respectable families to appear onscreen, so initially female roles were played by men, in the style of Shakespeare or Monty Python! However, the Jewish community was more liberal and progressive owing to their far more Westernised bringing-up and were prepared to take these role. The fact that they had lighter skin made them all the more suited for celluloid. These communities had very different values. Jewish women worked on other professions that at the time Hindu and Islamic women shunned. The Jews did not regard it as dirty and neither did the viewing public, who adored these stars.
Given the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and the recent war drums with China & Pak and also India’s close ties to Israel, it is important to note the importance that films had and will have in manufacturing public opinion, degrading and demoralizing society in exactly the same way as was done in the West, as a means of changing it into a pliable nation willing to do whatever organized Zionist interests want. Cinema is a very powerful medium and in this age of asymmetrical warfare a very close eye has to be kept for similar patterns on every aspect touching people’s lives.
Previous article on the Bollywood Series can be read here
Bollywood : A ‘War-Baby’ Conceived by British & Nurtured by Indians
Below is an excerpt from the talk at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on April 14 on Shalom Bollywood made by Danny Ben-Moshe.
Jewish Stars of Bollywood
By Michael Kaminer
They were towering stars of Bollywood, the century-old Mumbai-centered film industry that still cranks out 800 films a year, more than double the output of the U.S. And Danny Ben-Moshe, a research fellow at Deakin University in Australia, has spent six years piecing together their fascinating and largely forgotten stories for “Shalom Bollywood,” a documentary set for release later this year. The film “tells of the 2,000-year-old Indian Jewish community and its formative place in the Indian film industry,” according to its web site.
Peppering his presentation with rare film clips, Ben-Moshe will “tell the tale of how I stumbled on the story, how it unfolded, and the trials and tribulations of trying to make [the film].” He corresponded by email with The Arty Semite before boarding a plane for Toronto.
Michael Kaminer: How did you get into this subject, and what compelled you to make a movie about it?
Danny Ben-Moshe: An Indian student of mine gave me an obituary of Nadira, the last of the great Jewish Bollywood actors to pass away. I knew there were Indian Jews but had no idea there was such a prominent Jewish on screen star. I went to India to do some research to see if there was enough material to make a film about Nadira but I found out she was the tip of the iceberg.
The compelling factor was that it was such an intriguing different and eye-opening story. Given the subject matter, it offered the opportunity to make a vibrant, fun, slightly quirky film. How often do filmmakers get the opportunity to make all-singing, all-dancing documentaries?
How did Jews get involved in Bollywood films in the first place?
To some extent Jews got involved in Bollywood, or Indian cinema as it was then known, through a quirk of cultural circumstance. When Indian cinema began, it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to appear onscreen, so initially female roles were played by men, in the style of Shakespeare or Monty Python! However, the Jewish community was more liberal and progressive and they were prepared to take these role. The fact that they had lighter skin made them all the more suited for celluloid.
These communities had very different values. Jewish women worked on other professions that at the time Hindu and Islamic women shunned, like being telephone operators. The Jews did not regard it as dirty and neither did the viewing public, who adored these stars.
Was there any Jewish involvement in the creation of Bollywood itself, like in Hollywood?
It doesn’t quite compare because Hollywood was a studio system. Indian cinema was going for several years before the first studio opened. However, the first female superstar was the Jewish actress Sulochana (aka Ruby Myers), and she and other Jewish stars had a formative impact on the development of Indian cinema.
While in the early days of Hollywood the Jewish influence was behind the camera, in India it was front-and-center onscreen, but there were some important exemptions to this. Foremost of these is the scriptwriter David Joseph Penkar, who wrote the first talkie in India cinema, “Alam Ara” in 1931 that established the template Indian film was to follow.
Could you tell us about just a few of the biggest Jewish Bollywood stars?
Along with Sulochana, there’s Pramila (aka Esther Abrahams), the first Miss India, and Nadira, one of the all time great vamps of India cinema, who regularly featured in the films of legendary director Raj Kapoor.
Jews worked in all these fields, and some still do, but their major impact was on screen. They were the biggest of the big stars and pushed the boundaries of Indian cinema. I should, however, mention the late Bunny Reuben, the right hand man to Raj Kapoor and maybe Bollywood’s greatest-ever publicist.
This month marks the centennial of Bollywood film-making. Is there any awareness in India – or anywhere – about the roles Jews played?
I have spoken to many prominent industry figures in India past and present and few knew these people were Jewish. That is part of the story my film tells, which is because of the stage names of the Jewish stars people assumed they were Muslims. The Indian Jewish community was and is so tiny people don’t even know what a Jew is. They were often confused with a prominent minority, the Parsis.
Is there any Jewish presence in Bollywood today?
Yes, but in a more modest way, such as choreographer Baba Herman, who is in my film.
End of interview.
Jews, the lost tribe of Indian Cinema
When India started producing films in the early 20th century, it was taboo for Hindu and Muslim women from “respectable” families to play the lead roles. The Jewish community, owing to the far more Westernised bringing-up, was more liberal when it came to acting in movies, especially by the womenfolk.
Solomon, a Bene Israel’s grandfather Solomon Moses ran the Bombay Film Lab Pvt Ltd from the 1940s to 1990s.
It is believed Bene Israelis are the descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, which was shipwrecked at Navgaon, a small village south of Mumbai, in the second century B.C. and made India their home.
The community was in a sense pioneering when it comes to the Bombay film industry with several superstars of the silent era hailing from Jewish households.
Actress Firoza Begum alias Susan Solomon, a Bene Israel, starred in a succession of Hindi and Marathi films like “Bewafa Qatil”, “Prem Veer” and “Circus Girl” in the 1920s and 1930s.
Ruby Meyers (1907-1983), more famous by her screen name Sulochana (senior), was another Bene Israel, who was introduced into the world of films by Ardeshir B. Irani, the father of Indian talkies.
The Pune-born actress starred in movies like “Typist Girl” (1926) and “Wildcat of Bombay” (1927) and was one of the highest paid actresses of her time drawing a salary of Rs.5,000.
She is often remembered for her role of a nanny in “Julie” (1975), which also starred another famous Jewish actress Nadira alias Farhat Ezekiel, a Baghdadi Jew who debuted opposite Dilip Kumar in “Aan” (1952).
The Baghdadi Jews (who arrived from Iraq, Syria and Iran around 1796, fleeing persecution in their native lands) were very fair and beautiful, making them ideal candidates for the silver screen.
Scholars also recall Patience Cooper (1905-1983), who played the first double role of Indian cinema in “Patni Pratap” (1923), Pramila or Esther Abraham and others.
David Abraham Cheulkar (1908-1982), better known as David, who portrayed the benevolent “John Chacha” of “Boot Polish” (1954) and is remembered for the song “Nanhe Munne Bachche”, too was a Bene Israel.
Kolkata-born Ezra Mir alias Edwin Myers (1903-1993) was the first chief of India’s Film Division, then called the Information Films of India under British rule, and is mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records as the producer of the largest number of documentaries and short films.
Bunny Reuben, another Bene Israel, is a senior film journalist and author who has chronicled the trends in Bollywood since the late 1940s and was a close friend and publicist of legendary showman Raj Kapoor.
Reuben has penned several biographies of Bollywood personalities – the latest one being “…and Pran”, about the life and times of the screen villain Pran.
Nadira, who hailed from the Nagpada area of central Mumbai, is perhaps the only Jew who continues today to do the odd role in television serials and cinema.
On their part, Jews – in India as well as in Israel – are fond of vintage Hindi film music.
The 50,000-strong Indian Jews settled in Israel are perhaps the biggest fans of vintage Bollywood music. They associate these songs with fond memories they have of their time in India.
What is important to note here is the infiltration of Mossad into Bollywood as well. A disproportionate assets case filed by R.K. Yadav, 62, a former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) official against Anand Kumar Verma, 81, who retired as RAW chief in 1990 unveils a riveting story of safe houses for Mossad, fake firms and secret funds; buying shopping complexes and even producing movies.
Read more on this here RAW & Mossad : The Secret Link – Mossad Safe Houses in New Delhi