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Who knew that Jewish actresses dominated Indian movies for the first decades of its 100-year history? In Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, Danny Ben-Moshe tells the story of four extraordinary female superstars — Sulochana, Pramila, Miss Rose and Nadira — as well as popular character actor David Abraham, in a lively, audience-friendly documentary that can be over-obvious and coy at times, but is full of surprises. Following its world premiere at Mumbai, it is already booked for command performances at Indian and Jewish-themed festivals worldwide.
Entertaining rather than scholarly, the film couldn’t be farther in tone from the Australian director’s award-winning doc Code of Silence, which talked about child sex abuse in Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community. Here Ben-Moshe tells the fascinating story of how, in the silent era, Hindu and Muslim women in India refused to appear in the new medium of movies and female roles were played by men.
This unhappy state of affairs was ingeniously remedied by women from India’s small Jewish community, who faced no great cultural taboos about performing in public. With their lighter skin and high “Western” cheekbones, women belonging to the progressive, Anglicized communities of Bene Israelis, who have lived in India for 2,000 years, and Baghdadi Jews from Iraq emerged as Bollywood’s first megastars.
The first of these was Ruby Myers, known by her screen name, Sulochana. Sultry and beautiful, she smashed taboos and stole the limelight from her male costars. Footage of her silent films is extremely rare, and Ben-Moshe makes do with bringing some of her publicity stills to life through winking animation, which is hardly the same thing. But mere glimpses of her in films like the 1927 Wild Cat of Bombay, in which she played eight roles including several male characters, are stunning. An Indian postage stamp commemorated her in 2013.
Next came Esther Abraham, known as Pramila, who was to become the first Miss India in 1947. Like Sulochana, she owned a Bollywood studio. (Her cousin Rose Ezra, known simply as Miss Rose to her fans, became a star of the ‘30s.) Interviews with actor-playwright Haider Ali, Pramila’s son by her Muslim husband, emphasize the fluid nature of religious backgrounds in the film industry. One of the film’s main themes, in fact, is India’s cultural diversity and the lack of anti-Semitism the stars encountered.
One Jewish man who became very prominent onscreen was the diminutive character actor David Abraham Cheulkar. He starred in more than a hundred films and became a beloved household name as “Uncle David,” following his role as a bootlegger who defends children in the 1954 Boot Polish. Ben-Moshe succinctly conveys his charismatic appeal in a handful of film clips and photos.
The film’s last glamorous star is Nadira (Florence Ezekiel), who flourished in the ‘50s and ‘60s with films like Aan playing opposite Dilip Kumar. Though dismissively characterized too often in the film as “the vamp,” her haughty, looking-down-her-nose attitude strongly recalls Joan Crawford, and it is not hard to see how these Jewish actors learned a lot from the Hollywood stars.
A film historian would have spent more time considering this, along with the actresses’ difficult transition to the Hindi-language talkies, a language they did not speak at home and had to learn. Here the material is more oriented to general interest topics, divided into sections about silent cinema, the golden age, and “today.” At times the flippant commentary can be irritating, as are the little stars of David that accompany Jewish interviewees’ names and the Islamic star and crescent that appears every time Ali comes onscreen. Eliminating these unnecessary religious tags would not be a bad idea.
Production company: Identity Films in association with Films Victoria
Director, screenwriter, producer: Danny Ben-Moshe
Directors of photography: Danny Ben-Moshe, Rakesh Bhilare, Jake Clennell, Bonnie Elliot, Roshan Marodkar, Dwit Monani, A. J. Rickert-Epstein, Sunil Sharma, Tapan Vyas
Editors: Bill Murphy, Robert Werner
Venue: Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival (Discovering India)
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